When you're from Louisville, the Kentucky Derby is, well, complicated. "It's a really exciting time for everybody," says photojournalist and Kentucky native Justin Gilliland. "The events leading up to it are more for the people of Louisville, and then the actual race weekend comes and it's ... " he says trailing off. "It's hard to say whether I like it or not."
Louisville is quaint as far as American cities go, but on derby weekend, it explodes, going from the 30th largest city in the country to the third. "You're used to it being calm and for that one weekend it's all these huge media companies and all these strangers with a ton of money rolling in," Gilliland says.
The 2016 Kentucky Derby was Gilliland's fourth time photographing the event. And in his experience, the derby of decadence and depravity that Hunter S. Thompson documented (and succumbed to) in 1970 has almost become a cliche. "It's so contradictory when you put on thousands of dollars of clothes and romp around in a muddy field and jump around on porta potties. It makes for interesting images." But, as a seasoned attendee, Gilliland was eager to find a new way of seeing the event.
What's remarkable about Gilliland's slyly dark take on this spectacle of sport — one of the biggest of the year — is the dearth of faces. Gilliland's lens curbs the day's artifice and looks beyond the blossoming bonnets and the 100-watt smiles. "[The faces] can be a lie," Gilliland says, with a nod to Thompson, who also saw the familiar faces of the derby as a well worn disguise: "The mask of the whiskey gentry — a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams, and a terminal identity crisis," the gonzo journalist wrote in 1970.
Instead, Gilliland manipulates his subjects, getting uncomfortably close, decapitating with crops, or obscuring with distance. "I look for spaces where there aren't faces."
"People want emotion," Gilliland says, "but it's kind of a void. If anyone wanted to be emotionally attached to the horse racing industry, it would look a lot different."
After the Derby wraps up this weekend, Gilliland, who won't be attending ("You go three of four times and then you're done."), will also be wrapping up his photojournalism studies at Western Kentucky University. As he looks toward a future internship in New York, he acknowledges that the derby, with all its flaws, helped him find his artistic expression.
"It almost felt like a culmination of how far I've come," he says. "I think this essay makes people ask more questions about the derby than answers them and that's what I want to get into — feeding off of my own curiosity and portraying that into images."