American photographer Rory Doyle has been documenting the life of African American cowboys and cowgirls in the Mississippi delta since 2017. With his series “Delta Hill Riders” he won this year’s ZEISS Photography Award themed “Seeing Beyond – The Unexpected”. Doyle’s photos astound with an unexpected reassessment of the American cowboy myth – and break with stereotypes that still distort the public image of Afro-American culture. An interview.
Lenspire: Let us begin with what is probably the most difficult question: For you personally – what constitutes the perfect photo?
Rory Doyle: That is a difficult question indeed! There is this rule: “A great photo comprises four elements: Light, composition, moment and colour.” I can’t remember exactly where I got that from, but I always have those four elements in mind when I’m on assignment or editing shots on the computer. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, that’s the key to an impressive picture.
LENSPIRE: So how did you become a photographer? What is your motivation?
Doyle: That started early. My parents had a video camera when my siblings and I were little. It fascinated me from the beginning and I always wanted to hold it and experiment with it until I was doing most of the family films. Nevertheless, when I entered college I didn’t specialize in photography or filming, but studied journalism. So I mostly focused on writing. In my last semester I took the introductory course “Photojournalism 101”. The decision came rather spontaneously. In retrospect, I’m very grateful, because the professor and the course showed me that I’d rather tell stories with pictures than with words.
Lenspire: What happened afterwards? Did you work as a photographer immediately?
Doyle: No, I started as a reporter for a local newspaper. Because it was a small newspaper in a small town, the writers also had to shoot their photos themselves. I really put a lot of attention into the photographs that were going along with the story. As time went by, people took notice of my work and I got a job offering as a marketing photographer at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. My editorial background was an advantage, in that I can both take photos and write.
Lenspire: You have recently won the ZEISS Photography Award 2019 for your photo series “Delta Hill Riders” about African-American cowboys in the Mississippi Delta. How did you come up with the topic?
Doyle: First of all: I use the term “cowboy” or “cowgirl” rather loosely in this context – in Texas there are people of this profession who herd cattle full-time. The community in the delta also identifies with the cowboy scene and takes part at rodeos, trails and horse shows. But for them it means something else. It is more about the community itself and their love for their horses.
My project actually started in December 2016, when I reported about the Christmas parade in Cleveland, Mississippi. At the end of the parade there was a small group of African American cowboys. When I saw that, something clicked and awoke my journalistic curiosity. I realized that I had never thought about black cowboys before, even though this community is deeply entrenched in the Mississippi region. So I thought to myself, “hey, there’s a story in this.”