rory doyle

Reflection - Rory Doyle In His Own Words

Rory Doyle-11.jpg

Words By : Rory Doyle

Earlier this month, I received an exciting phone call notifying me that I received the 2019 Taking Focus Grant. As you can imagine, I was immediately ecstatic!

As a freelance photographer in the rural Mississippi Delta, funding for project work is crucial. Grant assistance in remote America is so critical at this time, particularly when it seems like support for the arts continues to dwindle.

The funding will go a long way in helping me continue my ongoing documentary project on African American cowboys and cowgirls in the Mississippi Delta — a subculture that has long been overlooked.

I was extremely interested in applying to the grant when I read the main elements of Taking Focus’s mission — to present stories that will impact communities; to build a better understanding of social and human rights issues; and to educate and advocate for those who do not have an equal platform to voice themselves.

The main feature of the grant that peaked my interest was the “giving back” component, where a portion of the funding will be given directly to cowboys and cowgirls photographed in my project. I’ve been extremely fortunate to publish the work in a number of outlets and multiple exhibitions — and now, through the giving back component, the grant will allow the riders to receive a contribution and have a platform to share their stories.

In my proposal, I outlined an educational outreach program where the cowboys/cowgirls would visit local K-8 schools in my county. The riders will bring their horses and talk to students about black cowboy history and local riding history. Students will be tasked with the assignment to talk to their parents/guardians and research their family’s ties to cowboy culture. I’ll collect their findings, and thus have new contacts to photograph and interview for historical context.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to share this body of work in a number of ways. The work was first shown at the Half King Photo Series in New York in June 2018, along with a concurrent show in Harlem. Washington Post then shared the project online, which led to more publicity from ABC News, Yahoo, PDN, The Guardian and more. The project was also supported with grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Mississippi Humanities Council. Additionally, I received a first-place prize at the 2018 Eye Em awards in the journalism category.

The first full exhibit of the project was unveiled Feb. 19, 2019 in Cleveland, Mississippi (where I’m based) at the Delta Arts Alliance. Opening night for the exhibition was a career highlight for me, as the gallery was so crowded that people couldn’t fit in the building. Cowboys and cowgirls came out in large numbers and they were given the opportunity to speak about their passion. In addition, a lecture on black cowboy history was provided by a professor from the local university. The crowd was diverse, and I left with great pride seeing how the event brought the community together. It’s a night I’ll never forget.

Just a few days after opening night in Mississippi, my wife and I were extremely fortunate to travel to London and launch a separate exhibit at The Print Space Gallery on Feb. 28. It was another experience we will cherish — travelling across the pond to continue sharing these unique stories. Much like the first exhibit, the venue was packed and the crowd was diverse. Being able to share the work is a huge honor, but to see people overcoming some common racial barriers is even more rewarding.

My project will soon undergo a shift thanks to the giving back component. A greater purpose will shape, where the cowboys and cowgirls will have additional opportunities to benefit from the project. I have high aspirations that this will expand the work’s impact in the community, which is a prospect I don’t take lightly.

I’m incredibly grateful to those involved in the grant process who I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with, including judge Mike Davis (who holds the endowed Alexia Chair at Newhouse), Jennifer Kaczmarek (president of Taking Focus), and Jerry Englehart Jr.(stills director at Taking Focus). I am honored to be associated with all of you, and I’m looking forward to the next stages.

2019 Taking Focus Photo Grant Winner - Rory Doyle

Delta Hill Riders by Rory Doyle


Rory Doyle’s passion for telling the stories of the Delta Hill Riders is apparent both in his images and in what he intends as a giving back component - to enliven the history of these mythic cowboys by having them tell their stories present and past in the area schools. To connect elders and peers with a new generation in the Delta is admirable in itself. To do so in the service of preserving a little known slice of history is all the more important.

Rory takes us into settings through moment-driven images that are powerful and varied compositionally with a strong use to tonality to convey meaning beyond what is shown. As we pass from setting to setting there’s always a strong sense of place that freezes the nowness of the people in the pictures. - Mike Davis, Judge

Project Proposal:

A recent article in Smithsonian estimated that just after the Civil War, one in four cowboys were African American. Yet this population was drastically underrepresented in popular accounts. And it is still. The “cowboy” identity retains a strong presence in many contemporary black communities.

This ongoing documentary project in the Mississippi Delta, “Delta Hill Riders,” sheds light on an overlooked black subculture — one that resists both historical and contemporary stereotypes.

The project began in January 2017 when I attended a black heritage rodeo in Greenville, Mississippi.

The body of work reveals how deep and diverse this community is. I’ve been invited to black heritage rodeos, horse shows, trail rides, “Cowboy Night” at black nightclubs, and subjects’ homes across the Delta.

On a personal level, I've been welcomed by these folks in a way I could not have imagined. And because of that, it’s been the most engaging project I've worked on. It’s a story that's particularly timely with the current political environment, and a renewed focus on rural America.

Delta Hill Riders is a counter-narrative to the often negative portrayal of African Americans. Instead, I have captured a group of riders showing love for their horses and fellow cowboys, while also passing down traditions and historical perspectives among generations.

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.

The Taking Focus Grant would go a long way in supporting me as I continue to travel across the 18 counties that make up the Mississippi Delta to work on the project. The story has already had an impact in the community, educating Deltans about a group of riders that have largely been overlooked.

Giving Back Component:

One roadblock I’ve faced throughout this project is an inability to uncover documentation of Delta cowboy culture through the years. Simply put, there is very little documentation of how this population started and how it has changed through generations. My best information comes from oral history accounts. And all the elder riders I’ve spoken with say in the old days, there were way more cowboys.

My proposal with the Giving Back Component is to rely on the local population to gain a stronger historical understanding. I would use the funding to pay elder cowboys/cowgirls to visit local K-8 schools in my county. The riders will bring their horses and talk to students about black cowboy history, and local riding history. Students will be tasked with the assignment to talk to their parents/guardians and find out if their family also has ties to cowboy culture. I’ll collect their findings, and thus have new contacts to interview for historical information.


We at Taking Focus, Inc. would like to greatly thank Mike Davis for his belief in our organization’s mission. We at Taking Focus Inc. believe that photographers should give back to the communities that they have built a relationship with through their projects. This grant opportunity encouraged Rory Doyle to go above and beyond just documenting what was in front of his camera. By Rory proposing a giving back component that connects generational understanding of the history of the black cowboys in the Mississippi Delta, he recognized how aligning his project goals with our organization’s mission would ultimately give a resilient voice to the community he was documenting. Rory’s proposal to help educate the younger generation about the their connections to an under documented culture is key to leaving a lasting change for the Mississippi Delta as a whole.


We would like to greatly thank our generous underwriters Charleen and Kenny Sacks for making this year’s grant possible. We are very thankful for their belief in the documentary process and believing in Taking Focus, Inc. to support a project that directly impacts furthering a community through our giving back component.