JUKE JOINT: For our seventh issue, we had the honor of sitting down for a chat with photojournalist, Mainer, Mississippi celebrity, and generally awesome human, Rory Doyle. For those unfamiliar with Rory’s work, the attention to detail, the sense of community, and the compassion that permeates through his photographs is simply breathtaking. It’s impossible to look at Rory’s photos and not feel invited into another world altogether, one that is both foreign, and yet wholly familiar. For us, this is the real beauty of his work—it is intimately documentarian. It doesn’t seek to merely document, but gets to know. You truly feel closer to the folks Rory encounters–you can’t passively observe his photographs without being invited into someone else’s home. The Delta cowboys, folks stricken by the disastrous flooding along the Mississippi river, or couples sharing their love in part of the country where heteronormativity holds a bully pulpit, Rory’s photos welcome the viewer into another’s shoes and encourage perspective shift, sometimes even demand it. And once there, it’s impossible not to feel fully welcomed, fully immersed in the lives and experiences of those within his lens.
Rory, what fascinates us about this ZEISS Lens project is how personal and organic it feels. Can you tell us where you got the idea, and how you’ve come to work with so many great folks willing to share their love stories?
RORY: It was random timing, but [ZEISS] started a national campaign in the US for people, maybe a dozen, to use their newer lenses and capture different interpretations of love—with a focus on the LGBTQIA community—and so that’s how I started. It’s not an idea that I can take credit for personally. It was a project that came from a brand, which I think is interesting because a lot of brands shy away from topics that are controversial, and I found that really impressive and wanted to be associated with it.
JUKE JOINT: Mississippi isn’t always the place many people associate as the home of a thriving queer community or an LGBTQIA+ culture. Frankly, we’d venture to say most folks outside of Mississippi assume the opposite, but your project really pushes folks to think differently about The Hospitality State, yeah?
RORY: In rural Mississippi, we don’t talk about that subject matter a lot, publicly, and so I think the project provided an outlet for people to speak and feel like they matter.
I’ve been surprised by how many people want to take part, and I don’t think I’ve seen any negative or terrible things said in response to the photos. It’s been all love, and that’s great. The project officially ended at the end of July, but I think I’ll continue to work on highlighting people within that community here in the Mississippi Delta and see where the project goes. I’m really hoping to see where it leads itself in a natural way. On a personal level, it’s been really nice to connect with people who’re able to, comfortable to, and feel the need to talk about it—because it’s something we don’t talk about a lot in the Bible Belt. What’s amazing is this community is larger than we think, and it’s harder to talk about in Mississippi—a number of topics are—because we are in an envelope. We’re a conservative place in general, so it’s refreshing to see how large and supportive this community is. Things are a little slower to change here in the Delta, but in doing this project, I’ve seen how many people are open to talking, and that’s significant because, across the world really, we’re beginning to see more rights for people in the LGBT community. And it’s long overdue, and it’s great to get that perspective from a place in rural America where they’re even more overlooked.
What’s amazing is this community is larger than we think, and it’s harder to talk about in Mississippi—a number of topics are—because we are in an envelope. We’re a conservative place in general, so it’s refreshing to see how large and supportive this community is.
JUKE JOINT: There’s something entirely fascinating about the way you photograph people as they are, and we think this is true in this ZEISS project. The way you document the stories of marginalized voices in the Delta is entirely empathetic. For example, one of your earliest encounters was a photograph with Jacqueline and Kara Goldman—who, at that time, were celebrating their first wedding anniversary—outside of their home in Cleveland, MS. You quote them on your Instagram saying love, “can look like so many different things. . . I want a variety of relationships to be more mainstream so kids don’t have to feel like they’re different, and they can feel accepted and loved for who they are and who they’re being raised by.” Portraits like these, and words like theirs, are both candid and intimate in ways that feel so earnest and welcoming, which I think can also be words we don’t always associate with parts of this place—The South—because we have such a deep, horrific, history of hate and discrimination. But your intimate documentarian style also extends to your project on the Delta cowboys. Some of these photos in jukes and around folks’ homes are reminiscent of Birney Imes’ work in the 80s and 90s. What inspired you to begin documenting the cowboys of Mississippi?
RORY: Well the cowboys project was a random subject I stumbled upon in the 2016 Christmas parade in Cleveland. I was actually there at the time photographing Delta State’s participation in the parade, because I was still the photographer for Delta State, and I saw a small group of riders at the end of the parade—and it struck me as a really interesting image. I grew up in Maine, in a place that has zero diversity when you compare it to the Mississippi Delta, and I think it was the first time that I paid attention to the diverse cowboy culture that exists in our country. I started to do a bit of research, and I came to realize that this has actually long been a subculture, if you will, but it has also been here in the Delta. If you’re not a horse rider or a cowboy it’s very easy to look past the fact that this community exists. In the really short time when I started the project—right after that parade—I started to see how large the population is and how passionate the riders are here and how they support each other and they love their horses, which is the common denominator. It’s interesting, you know, Mississippi is not a place where people think of cowboy culture. It’s here, and it’s not the same as Texas or Louisiana or Oklahoma—where they are many, many cowboys working on the ranch. It’s much more of a social, recreational culture here. They dress like a cowboy would in Texas or other places, but they’re not all full-time cowboys or cowgirls. They’re doing other things. They’re students, they’re retirees, some of them work at Walmart or Kroger, so the common denominator is that identity of being a cowboy or cowgirl, wearing the boots and hats, going on trail rides, going to rodeos or horse shows, or even parades, and going to the clubs—which is something I’ve photographed too. They go to different night clubs around the region, and I call it cowboy night—the DJ plays different music and everybody dresses up and it’s a really cool mesh of regular community folks and the cowboy community all sharing this common space in a club and having a good time. It’s been really special to me to work on this project and get to know the community so closely. Again, growing up in Maine, I didn’t have the opportunity to get so close to the African American community, so it has been life changing and career changing too because of how much reach the project has had. It’s been published in a number of papers and magazines and been in a few contests, and it has blown my mind how far it has reached, and I’m really grateful for all of that.
It’s interesting, you know, Mississippi is not a place where people think of cowboy culture. It’s here, and it’s not the same as Texas or Louisiana or Oklahoma—where they are many, many cowboys working on the ranch. It’s much more of a social, recreational culture here. They dress like a cowboy would in Texas or other places, but they’re not all full-time cowboys or cowgirls. They’re doing other things. They’re students, they’re retirees, some of them work at Walmart or Kroger, so the common denominator is that identity
JUKE JOINT: A lot of our interviews focus on how the artist or writer has developed their particular style or voice, and that exists so evidently in your photographs. A lot of your photos, from our perspective, have this incredible eye for intimate closeups, but also your broader shots of landscapes or a singular place where the subject might be within that context seem equally intimate and narrative. Can you talk a little bit about your aesthetic choices?
RORY: I think one thing that I’ve always paid attention to is being able to decipher the story within the photo, and seeing what’s in the background has always been a part of that for me—whether it’s the landscape or a place of work or at the barn for the cowboys. It’s about telling a little of the story through the intimacy of the person in the photo but also the background. It provides detail. It provides context for what you’re doing, and as a documentarian you have a responsibility to do that in various ways. Sometimes it’s close-ups and the background is just barely visible and other times it’s shooting medium range and wide range photos where you’re getting a really in-depth perspective, and that’s something I focus on when I consider I should be telling this story in a way that’s full. That’s something that’s been paramount to my work from the beginning, and I think some of that comes from my training as a journalist, you know. You have to include the important information, you have to include the facts. And I pay attention to that every time I’m on assignment.
I think, sometimes, it can be a little bit hard to tell a story completely in one photo . . . I’m always thinking about what’s beyond the obvious, what little details can I show . . . so people can have a deeper understanding of what’s being told
JUKE JOINT: You touch on that intersect between the story and the photo. Do you feel like that’s a fluid lens, that the line between what is story in the written sense and what is story photographically is less rigid that we might think?
RORY: I think, sometimes, it can be a little bit hard to tell a story completely in one photo, so working as a documentarian you have the opportunity to use a variety of images to tell that story, opposed to writing where you can put it down in one sentence or one paragraph, so it’s my job, I guess, to photograph the story in all different ways—in terms of not just the obvious, what’s right in front of you, but also the details that exist and amplify, if you will, your main shots. I don’t know if that answers your question completely, but I’m always thinking about what’s beyond the obvious, what little details can I show—or even at a wide angle what details can I show—so people can have a deeper understanding of what’s being told.
JUKE JOINT: No, that’s a great answer. Thinking about your photos in The New York Times piece—about flooding along the Mississippi River—we’re reminded of the one photograph where the lens is looking, clearly, from inside of something. We’re not sure if it’s a piece of farm equipment or what, but that part of the equipment, or that piece of metal, obscures the foreground. And in the background you can see the father and his daughter assessing the damage. This really speaks to what you’re saying, you know, finding some unique way to express exactly that, this story you’re hoping to tell.
RORY: Yeah. That shot you’re talking about is relevant to your question. I mean, I am standing in a tractor when I’m taking that picture and that technique is what we call layering. So we have the layer of the foreground, just a portion of the tractor. Then you have the middle ground, where you actually see the father and daughter and the equipment, and then the background—the farthest back layer—where you get a sense of how massive this flood is and, you know, this technique is one way I like to provide a lot of information in one image, and I think doing that you give a stronger sense of what the story is.
JUKE JOINT: Your career has kind of, as the kids say, blown up in the past couple of years into something quite incredible. You were working as a journalist at The Bolivar Commercial before you became the staff photographer for Delta State University, and it seems like things really launched from there, specifically with your cowboys project. Can you tell us about that journey and what it’s like working freelance now?
RORY: I don’t know that there’s even a solid way to describe how my career path has gone. You know, photography and photojournalism is an evolving industry, so I couldn’t have ever have imagined when I was at the newspaper back in 2012 where my career would go because, I mean, newspapers themselves have changed so much. Papers are cutting photographers from their staff left and right, and the news is now seen so much online. There’s fewer magazines, like, there are all these elements that are changing, and I had no idea I’d end up where I am now. And I feel very fortunate to have had all of these opportunities to go from the paper to Delta State to eventually go full-time freelance starting last year in August. I think during that whole process I remained committed to a couple of things: each time I was working on something and using my camera, either personally or on assignment, I took it as an opportunity to get better, improve, to think about how I could be a better photographer and storyteller. And the other thing was that I remained committed to working hard. I never, you know, sometimes I have a hard time stopping work, and I know that can be a good quality, but sometimes it can be a challenge to step back from my work, but it’s what I love to do. Those qualities, I still live by them, and every time I’m working, I think about getting better, I think about learning, and I think about working hard to tell a story. It’s not an easy career path for anyone, I don’t think. I guess my message to young photographers or people considering the career is those few things: working hard and being willing to learn every time. And the industry is going to keep changing, so I don’t know what my career will look like five years from now, but I feel really fortunate that opportunity has come to me in a place here in the Mississippi Delta where most people don’t think of as an opportunity for this career, and it goes to show that if you work hard and you study and learn and improve, opportunities can come. And I think that’s a universal trait, no matter where you’re from, you put your effort into it, you can have opportunities come to you professionally.
I think during that whole process I remained committed to a couple of things: each time I was working on something and using my camera, either personally or on assignment, I took it as an opportunity to get better, improve, to think about how I could be a better photographer and storyteller. And the other thing was that I remained committed to working hard.
JUKE JOINT: We think that's good advice for anyone, really, photographer, writer, plumber, farmer. Effort matters. Obviously we don't all start the game from the same place, but hard work, as you say, pays in opportunity. It seems like part of your freelance work involves being pretty voracious on Instagram, and we’re certainly grateful because you put out so much great content. How much of being a photojournalist these days depends on being active on social media, but specifically Instagram?
RORY: Instagram has really changed the photojournalism world. People are getting their news from Facebook and Instagram, and it’s providing an opportunity for photographers to get their work out there. I’ve used it to make connections with photo editors who’ve hired me for assignments, photo editors are using Instagram to scroll and see what new and fresh work is out there. It’s free. So it’s free advertising if you’re trying to promote what you’re doing, and it’s another way this industry is changing. It’s hard though because I spend a lot of time, like I’m strategic about what I post and when I post and hashtags are obviously important, but all these things require a level of consistency too. If you’re a photojournalist, you have to be consistent about the quality of work you’re putting out and, you know, also that what you’re posting has meaning so people can learn from it—if your goal is to be a storyteller and photojournalist.
JUKE JOINT: It’s almost as if Instagram is less like social media for checking in on folks and more like an extension of work.
JUKE JOINT: We always like to ask for recommendations–things you’re reading, or folks you’re following, or photographers you’re a fan of. Who’s on your radar?
RORY: Gosh, I don’t know. I just led a photo workshop here in the Delta with a company that I partnered with. They’re from Spain, but they do photo tours and workshops all over the world, The Raw Society. We met through Instagram and connected, so we came together recently and actually spent the entire workshop documenting the floods here in Mississippi. So I’d encourage folks to check out their social media. @jasperdoest’s project “Meet Bob” is a really interesting photojournalistic project that’s been ongoing for him and it’s been career changing for him as well, I think. I actually met him at the Sony World Photo Awards in London earlier this year—he won an award for the project. It’s a longform story about an injured flamingo that was rescued in this tiny Caribbean island, Curaçao. He went there to photograph the recovery process, the rehab process for this flamingo, and the people who were caring for him at this rehab facility—there were other birds there. It’s just a really, really striking photo essay of a lighter topic, but it has elements of more serious issues dealing with wildlife and climate change. It’s beautiful storytelling. I find it inspirational, actually. I’d encourage people to check it out as well, because it’s another great example of spending a serious amount of time in whatever your subject matter is doing, which has an impact on your work and how you’re telling their stories. In this case, it’s a flaming named Bob, but it’s a really touching project. Lastly, Magnum, VII Photo Agency, and specifically Ron Haviv’s work. Those are some things I’m constantly checking up on and finding inspiration from.