Rhode Island Highschooler Travels to Armenia to Work with National Geographic Photographer

By Brittany Ballantyne

(The Valley Breeze) – With a bag of clothes, a camera, batteries, a charger, and two lenses, Oliver Doyle, 17, stepped off the plane in Armenia about two weeks ago where he met with John Stanmeyer, National Geographic photographer, for a week-long workshop.

It all started with Instagram, where Doyle, a Cumberland High School (CHS) senior from Rhode Island, began to follow and admire Stanmeyer, and the photographer became Doyle’s idol. For about a year, Doyle explained, he’d kept in contact with Stanmeyer, inquiring how to get into the photography business.

Stanmeyer posted details about a photography workshop on Instagram, a photo and video app, but the event wasn’t close by. Christine Doyle, Oliver’s mother, noticed a piece of paper hanging from a cupboard in their Cumberland home that read “John Stanmeyer workshop” in December. The location: Armenia.

“I said, ‘You’re not going there, it’s not going to happen, but that’s a nice thing to put on your Christmas list,’” she recalled. Doyle, however, didn’t change his mind.

After speaking with Stanmeyer, Christine Doyle was convinced the trip was something her son needed to do.

“I know the world is big, I know there’s so much to see and experience … I don’t want him to only see the world through pictures,” said Christine Doyle, a lifelong Cumberland resident.

The workshop, Oliver Doyle explained, was a nine-day trip where he joined about a dozen other photographers and Stanmeyer in Armenia to get out and shoot photos to tell a story. Doyle worked alongside a translator, or “fixer,” who helped him navigate his way through the area.

The teen, who started taking photos on his iPhone before getting his first camera about three years ago, was the youngest of the group attending the first-come, first-served workshop. Many of the people in the workshop were about 20 years older than Doyle, and “very well-rooted in their photography,” he said, with decades of experience.

The CHS senior boarded a 14-hour flight to Moscow, Russia, but the trip didn’t start to feel real until he hopped onto the last plane, which took him to Yerevan, Armenia. He stayed at a hotel for the rest of the week, where his schedule was anything but predictable.

Doyle wanted to capture Armenian everyday culture and landscapes, and set out at different times each day of his trip to explore and snap photographs. He and his translator had a simple but random method: explore neighborhoods, knock on doors and talk to residents.

The CHS student would always ask permission to take photos, but was taken aback by how Armenians not only allowed him into their homes, but also treated him as if he’d lived in the country forever.

Doyle split his time between the Tsoghamarg village and a temporary housing area, Domik, where people still affected by the earthquake 23 years ago reside. While talking with locals, Doyle did his best to stay out of their way, but capture everyday life, whether the photos showed people working or spending leisurely time together.

He learned a few things from Armenians, he said, and became close with a couple in their 60s or 70s who he said welcomed him the most. Doyle quickly learned that it is Armenian tradition for guests to depart with a gift whenever they leave someone’s home. He was offered preserved apricots, which he explained were sacred to many Armenians, and plenty of other foods and coffee.

Though the people Doyle met were living in a “developing country,” he described their homes as colorful and beautiful inside, and the residents as happy and content. Rugs hung on walls and draped over sofas, and most houses were small with one story, a small kitchen, living room and bedrooms.

In the Domik settlement, Doyle said, most roads were made of dirt and the neighborhood was made up of metal houses. He also spoke of the farmland in the village, and mountains he could see in the distance.

While working in the village, Doyle was invited to a tooth party. It’s also tradition in Armenia, he explained, to celebrate an infant’s first tooth. During the party, the baby’s family dumps popcorn and candy on the child’s head, and puts balloons in front of the baby. Each balloon holds a message inside, that reads which profession the child will pursue when they age.

The day of that party, Doyle explained, the baby chose a balloon that read “teacher.”

Not all of the trip, though, was celebration and exploring, Doyle said.

Midweek, the 17-year-old hit “a creative wall,” he said, and “stopped seeing.” Each time he took photos, he said, he had to really think about how each photo related to his work and how the picture would flow with his photo essay at the end of the week. He managed to focus, he said, and get back on a path that allowed him to tell the story he wanted to show.

Each night, Doyle would stay awake editing, and meet with Stanmeyer to eliminate some of the photos he had taken. At the trip’s end, Doyle narrowed his photos down from 2,400 to 46 for a slide show he presented to the entire workshop group.

Being the youngest of the workshop crew, and having the least experience, Doyle said he was nervous before delivering his presentation, but everything fell into place. The feedback he received, he said, was positive, and his “role model,” Stanmeyer, told him that he was producing work at 17 years old that the National Geographic photographer hadn’t seen people in their 30s and 40s generating.

To hear that from his idol, Doyle said, validated the work the CHS student had been doing and furthered his passion for the art of storytelling.

Christine Doyle said, “It’s easy for us to say, ‘That’s amazing.’ That’s what we do as parents; we believe it and we support it,” but to hear those words from an internationally recognized photojournalist, she said, really confirmed her son’s talent.

The CHS senior doesn’t have a set plan post-graduation at this point, but said he’s thrilled to add a unique photo story to his portfolio. He also plans to keep in touch with Stanmeyer, the other photographers from the trip and his translator, a 22-year-old Armenian named Hovhannes.

Brittany Ballantyne is a Valley Breeze Staff Writer. Contact her at brittany@valleybreeze.com.

Photo Caption 1: Oliver Doyle, a Cumberland High School senior, stands with his translator, Hovhannes, who helped Doyle navigate through Armenia during a photography workshop trip. 

Photo Caption 2: 

Oliver Doyle took this shot of a man herding his cattle in the village of Tsoghamarg, outside Gyumri, Armenia. “I wanted to get closer to the cows, but I was told that they weren’t nice, and would probably attack me,” Doyle said.

About Armenian Assembly of America

Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.
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