Fstoppers Interviews Rory Doyle About the Delta Hill Riders Project

Fstoppers Interviews Rory Doyle About the Delta Hill Riders Project

Stories that change the way you see American culture are rare. The Delta Hill Riders project is one of those. 

Rory Doyle is an editorial photographer based in rural Mississippi who focuses on documenting life in the rural southeast section of America. He is regularly tapped to create photography for national news media by the New York Times, Washington Journal, and Men's Journal. Doyle's photos are vibrant with the textures of his surroundings. But his ability to set you in a place and connect you with people is what stands out the most. Delta Hill Riders is a project that does just that. It is an ongoing series that will open your eyes to an overlooked American cowboy subculture. 

When you think cowboys, a lot of people think John Wayne or famous country artists like Garth Brooks. The pillars of what we think of as "cowboy" are typically white and male. Cowboy culture in the southeast also runs deep in the African American community. The practice of owning and caring for horses goes back generations. 

The 'cowboy' identity retains a strong presence in many black communities. This ongoing documentary project in the rural Mississippi Delta sheds light on an overlooked black subculture — one that resists both historical and contemporary stereotypes. Ultimately, the project aims to press against my own old archetypes — who could and could not be a cowboy, and what it means to be black in Mississippi — while uplifting the voices of my subjects.

Doyle first met a group of young riders after the annual Christmas parade in his hometown of Cleveland, Mississippi. At the end of the ceremony, he asked them if he could photograph their horses. The riders were excited to be documented for the first time. This chance encounter was a doorway into the subculture of the Delta Hills Riders. After that, he regularly got invited to Black heritage rodeos, horse shows, trail rides, "Cowboy Night" at Black nightclubs, and into homes across the Delta. This access has been fundamental to allowing him to shoot his project and has led him to embark on an iconic journey. 

I felt there was a story to share here, one that embodies rural Mississippi, and one that's also tied to our national history. From the very beginning, the riders here accepted me, and they were excited to have someone document them for the first time.

In 2018 and 2019, Rory and the Delta Hills Project received numerous awards, and it has been shown dozens of times throughout the world. This includes being the grand prize winner of the Zeiss Photography Awards. 

Long-Term Projects 

Photographers get involved in documentary work for many reasons, but for photographers living in rural areas, editorial photography may be the only opportunity to tell a meaningful story through the use of their photo skills. Personal work is often the best way for a photographer to grow professionally. People want to see your lens on the world. Doyle's secret sauce to creating a meaningful photo project is time.

I think the best work photographers create is personal work — because it's creativity that comes from the mind of the photographer, as opposed to a photo editor or creative director. One of the documentary's most significant elements is time. The photographer needs to spend time with their subjects to establish a deep and intimate connection.

Time allowed him to create lasting relationships with the riding community for the Delta Hill Riders project. These relationships give him an insider view. Some of his most interesting photos are inside the Riders’ homes surrounded by their whole family. 

Approach to Shooting 

The imagery in the Delta Hill Riders often blurs the lines between documentary and portraiture. This feature is because of Doyle's unique approach to getting coverage while on assignment. 

My work is a good mix of portraiture and documentary, and I like that combination. I like to provide a wide survey of the overall topic so people can have a strong sense of the story, and I compliment that with portraits I set up. These portraits are imperative because they give viewers a close look into the eyes of the subjects, and it gives their narrative a direct voice.

This strategy ensues that he gets coverage of all the action unfolding in front of the camera. But this also allows for time to create designed shots where the subjects connect with the camera. It can be a strategy all photographers attempting to document something should try. 

Future of the Project

Delta Hill Riders is more than a gallery showing or any number of accolades. Doyle is documenting the past, present, and future of Mississippi’s African American cowboy culture. Capturing this means spending time with a spectrum of generations. Telling a rich story requires time and a mix of approaches. 

I'm still working on the project, and I plan to do that indefinitely. The next thing I'd like to do is professional audio interviews as a form of oral history, particularly with the older cowboys and cowgirls. These interviews will enhance the narrative as I plan to do a photo book within the next couple of years.

Doyle is taking a journalistic approach to this photo book. Capturing audio from real cowboys will open up many possibilities and multimedia avenues for the project. 

Doyle has shown us an untold story from where he lives. One of the most important keys to the success of his project is taking a long way home. Even after two ears of showings and awards, the journey is not over. The beginning of the Delta Hill Riders project can be found on Doyle's website, along with some other exciting personal projects. If you want more up-to-date imagery of life in the Mississippi Delta, and news regarding the progress of the project, you should find Rory Doyle on Instagram and give him a follow. I'm glad I did.

Photography provided by Rory DoyleChristopher Michel, and Marisol Doyle. 

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13 Comments

Anthony Collins's picture

"The practice of owning and caring for horses goes back generations."? Really?? Do yourself a favor and learn something. Start by finding the root of the word "Cowboy". You'll find it along side "Farm-boy, Pantry-boy, House-boy". Don't insult your readers by telling "some" of a story.

Kirk Darling's picture

That would be why it's a continuing project.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I'm not seeing your cause of outrage here. How is the sentence "The practice of owning and caring for horses goes back generations," an incorrect statement? I'm not seeing your correlation between pointing that sentence out and talking about the etymology of the word "Cowboy."

Dan Marchant's picture

Like Jeff Walsh I am struggling to see the reason for your outrage. All I can think of is that there is a racial issue that you're concerned about given your reference to "Farm-boy, Pantry-boy, House-boy". However it isn't really clear from your comment. Is it that you feel the author should make clear the conditions (slavery) under which African Americans learned to care for horses?

Having said that you seem to be confusing Cowboy with those other racially charged words. The root of the word cowboy is not the same as that of House-boy or Pantry-boy..... it is generally assumed to derive from the Spanish word for a person who tended cattle on horse back.

Anthony Collins's picture

"Is it that you feel the author should make clear the conditions (slavery) under which African Americans learned to care for horses?" Absolutely.

The root of the word Cowboy is absolutely derived from slavery. As in Farm-boy, Pantry-boy, etc.

To be clear, I'm not outraged by anything in the article. I give the photographer props for shedding light on this cowboy culture.

We live in America where many people want to "deny" the past or "dismiss" the past. This beautiful country was built on an ugly foundation. We simply can't overlook that.

Kirk Darling's picture

Not every story about black people in America needs to start with slavery or else be accused of "denying" or "dismissing" the past. I've got black cowboys in my own family history that started in 1889 Oklahoma. Slavery is in their past in the story of how and why they came to Oklahoma, but it's not in their past in terms of how they became cowboys.

Anthony Collins's picture

My reply to the OP was referring to the origin term Cowboys. You're being ridiculous in think I'm saying every story about Black Americans needs to start with slavery.

Kirk Darling's picture

That's not where "cowboy" originated either. In English, the term "cowboy" for cattle tenders goes all the way back to 1725. In the US, it was actually first applied to Mexicans.

Martin Van Londen's picture

The riding clubs and family's I was referring to, have been owning horses for recreation for generations. I don't think that has anything to do with the origins of Cowboys or the other names you used. My hope was you would click through to Doyles site to learn more about it. But if you already know, feel free to educate users about it.

Eric Robinson's picture

I first saw this project last year, and thought then it was a stunner.....and it’s still a stunning piece of work now.

Martin Van Londen's picture

I could not agree more. I'm excited to see the rest of it.

Joshua Mattox's picture

More stories like this please! I love Rory's work. I've been following him for a while and he really puts everything he has into his photography.

Martin Van Londen's picture

He really dose! This project is amazing. But I'm always excited to see is other projects that come out.