Travelers to Jamaica typically spend most of their time within the safe confines of gated resorts, choosing private beaches and exclusive bars over the island’s rich but sometimes unpredictable local culture. As a result, they’re less likely to encounter the kinds of scenes documented by photographer Rory Doyle during his recent visit there – like a local man splashing with his horse in the turquoise Caribbean, two jubilant kids diving from cliffs into a crystal clear river, Thoroughbreds galloping across a tropical meadow and dancers dressed to kill at a dazzling beach-side
“There’s a whole different side of Jamaica that most people don’t see, unless you’re more of a backpack-type traveler,” observed Rory, who traveled to Jamaica to speak at an arts conference and afterward spent ten days touring the island on his own. The trip was Rory’s second to the island, and in both cases he hired a driver named Rufus to haul him around with no set plan. “I let Jamaica lead me to where it would,” he said.
Rory’s day job is shooting marketing images for Delta State University, but he is also a freelance photographer who works both in Mississippi and also internationally. He said the areas of Jamaica that most visitors see, including the capital Kingston and the resorts of Montego Bay, “are not really representative of the island.” Having a local driver provided him access to more authentic encounters, often far off the beaten path. “The best part was how much interaction I had with local people,” he said.
The portraits Rory took of Jamaicans he encountered along the way are candid, even intimate, belying the fact that many islanders are wary about being photographed by strangers. He overcame his subjects’ reluctance through friendly introductions, persistence and a bit of charm. But what is most striking about Rory’s photos are their vivid colors – seemingly every hue of the rainbow brightening people’s attire, the facades of buildings, the landscape, the water, even the tints of women’s hair.
“The color is absolutely one of the most prominent themes of the Caribbean, and Jamaica, I especially found, is an explosion of color,” he said. “In general, my eyes are very attracted to collisions of color and Jamaica is one of the best places for that.”
Among the vibrant outcroppings are hole-in-the-wall bars and houses painted bright colors and businesses adorned with hand-painted images advertising their offerings, such as a painting of a fish on the wall of a seafood restaurant and provocative figures of women beckoning customers inside strip clubs and bars. In shopping districts, he said, “You see clothes hanging on the line for sale, everything colorful, everything around it colorful.”
Because Rory went places most tourists don’t see and has an eye for the unusual, some of his scenes are unexpected, like the horses sprinting across a lush field with green mountains beyond – this scene on an equestrian farm that breeds racehorses, some of which will compete in big races in the U.S. and be worth millions of dollars, he said.
The equestrian ranch “wasn’t at all on the tourist trail, and the only reason I ended up there was that I’d done a personal project on black cowboys in Mississippi, and so I was asking around, ‘What’s the cowboy-horse-rider culture here in Jamaica?’” he said. A local directed him to the ranch, where the proprietor told him about the scene repeated each morning when a gate is opened at feeding time and then advised him where best to position himself to capture it.
In Portland Parish, a remote area of eastern Jamaica that is considered among the safest in the country, Rory photographed a man named Scotty who hires out his horse for rides at quiet Winifred Beach, through the water or in the nearby rainforest. “He was a very interesting man, with a theater background, who’s been all over the world,” Rory said, illustrating his penchant for getting to know his photographic subjects rather than simply shooting quickly and moving on.
The roads in the area were “a little bumpy,” but that was just part of the local feel, he said. “Portland would be where I’d recommend people go who want to feel safe but have a real experience. The people are laid back and a little more appreciative of the beach – it’s not built up and the water is pristine. There’s something about seeing water so crystal clear and turquoise and blue. It’s one of the things that calls a lot of people.”
Rory noted that when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain hosted a TV episode set in Jamaica, he featured the Portland Parish town of Boston, which is known as the birthplace of jerk cooking. Boston is where Rory convinced a woman with strikingly-dyed red hair to let him photograph her as she sat outside at a “jerk center” café where patrons feast on jerk chicken and sausage. “It’s like an outdoor jerk food court,” he said of the establishment. “Jamaicans go there for it, and if you’re an international foodie, you have to go there – the food is by far the best, and you can tell because the local people are lining up, too.”
Of the woman in the photo, whose name was Adriana, he said, “I was drawn to her hair. She was eating jerk chicken with a friend, and when I asked, she was really kind of caught off guard. She didn’t agree to the photo at first, but it helped that it was her birthday and it was my birthday, too.” In the end, Adriana rose to the occasion, looking as if she had prepared for a photo shoot and knew exactly how to pose.
Adriana was the second person Rory met that day who shared his birthday. The other was a young boy named Horace whom he photographed in a luminous, clear river – one of his most striking portraits from the trip. Of the two shared birthdays, Rory said, “It was the universe providing unique connections.” Though he is white and most Jamaicans are black, “When barriers are broken between people, especially racial barriers, even if they aren’t spoken, at that point it doesn’t matter,” he said. “With my work in the Delta, it’s been the same type of rewarding exchange with people who are different than me.”
Another photo from Portland Parish shows a man poling a bamboo raft through the rapids of the Rio Grande River. For a fee, the man offers half-day excursions on the river, during which visitors float and swim. The raft rides are “a touristy thing to do,” Rory allowed, but they have a local aspect, too. If notified in advance, the guide will arrange for an area woman to prepare a lunch of local fare on an isolated riverbank.
Some of the tourists Rory photographed were Jamaicans who traveled by bus from Kingston to popular beach destinations. Among them were three young women dressed to the nines at Boston Beach, where he also shot photos of dancers at an outdoor discotheque that he said reminded him of club scenes in the Mississippi Delta, with the addition of risqué “dance hall” moves.
Driving around Jamaica, Rory also noted the obvious disparity between rich and poor, as illustrated by the gleaming white compound of what’s known as Trident Castle not far from a fisherman’s beachfront shack. Among the larger edifices is the Waterloo Guest House, built in 1819 by a British family named Shakespeare, which features a tri-colored picket fence and modern guest rooms out back where Rory spent two nights.
For the most part, Rory said he found popular Montego Bay to be less interesting – a place of “tourists packed into tiny spaces where people feel safe, with hagglers everywhere.” Kingston was likewise generally less intriguing to him, though he found noteworthy scenes to shoot there, too, including in the city’s Coronation Market and at a combination surfer hangout and hostel on the outskirts of town.
At the surfer hangout, he photographed men who represent Jamaican icons – Rastafarians with long dread locks, occasionally smoking weed. Despite the familiarity of the characters, his portraits have a freshness that testifies to his keen eye and skill at composition.
One of the Rastafarians, who goes by the name Lion, is a locally famous reggae musician and also makes hats, Rory said. Rufus, who had also driven him around Jamaica during his previous trip in 2016, “has legitimately shown me as real a Kingston as he can,” he said. “He’s friends with all these guys that are reggae musicians.”
Even for tourists who explore Kingston, few go to Coronation Market unless they’re on an organized tour because the area “has a reputation for not being the safest place,” Rory said. What he saw, though, was that, “These are just people trying to make a living.” Among them was Elaine, “a really sweet lady” who sells onions there. “I was attracted to her eyes and the contrast of her dress and the bags of red onions,” he said.
Elaine illustrated what Rory finds most beguiling about the more authentic side of Jamaica – the opportunity to make personal connections, to glimpse lives far different than his own, and to photograph it all in living color.