Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Camilo León-Quijano
La Cité, a project initially entitled “The imaged city. A multimedia anthropology of urban experiences in a marginalized French banlieue,” aimed to creatively portray the ethnographic research I had conducted in Sarcelles, a French banlieue located north of Paris, between 2015 and 2018 by producing three multimodal objects: a book, an exhibition, and a website.
This project develops new ways of publicizing urban ethnography to non-specialized audiences to foster innovative ways of doing public anthropology. Collaborations with various actors from the cultural and scientific community in France characterized the conception, realization, and diffusion of the project. The first object that we set up was the multimodal and interactive exhibition.
The City: A Photographic Anthropology
In partnership with the Fabrique des Écritures Ethnographiques (CNRS) and the Maison de l’Architecture et de la Ville de Marseille (MAV), we set up an open-free exhibition between October 10th and December 16th 2022. The exhibition took place at the MAV, an iconic place where the Order of Architects is based, a public location visited by a wide variety of individuals interested in urban issues (architects, lawyers, technicians, urban planners, students, and local dwellers…). The conception of the exhibition was a crucial moment in allowing the emergence of new ways of thinking about the staging of ethnographic research. We designed an interactive exhibition on a 100 square meters space inside the MAV. The editorial and scenographic work played a crucial role in the way the narrative path of the exhibition was conceived.
In Sarcelles, I produced over 11,000 edited photographs and 55 hours of sound recordings and gathered several hundred visual archives. Working in collaboration with anthropologist and filmmaker Jeff Silva, the exhibition curator, we produced a selection of photographs and ethnographic materials to be displayed: 67 photographs, a sound slideshow, seven excerpts from its ambiance, five archival videos, and various in-depth texts. These materials formed the foundation on which we worked to set up a narrative device that allowed the visitor to experience the city sensitively, following a five-step journey: the history of visual representations of Sarcelles, the city seen through the eyes of its inhabitants, the urban experience through the prism of sports, the transformations and tensions in the representation of the city, and on the intimacy of a local family.
This pictorial journey was shaped by including textual and audiovisual materials from my doctoral research. The objective was to produce an immersive narrative allowing the viewer to dive into the material and sensitive universe experienced during the ethnography. We proceeded with QR codes to create an image-driven journey complemented by other textual, sound, and film excerpts. The exhibition was thus conceived as an interactive place where the visitors could deepen the various subjects according to their wishes.
A central idea ran through my doctoral research: photography can be more than a tool to better describe, analyze, or illustrate ethnographic experiences in the field. Within a multimodal ethnography, photography can be considered as a powerful object for critically understanding embodied encounters in the field. Accordingly, as anthropologists, we must reflect on how we produce and share pictures from our research.
An exhibition that pays attention to these elements must be careful of several material features: the selection of the various exhibiting elements, the scenographic construction of a picture-driven narrative, the link between the textual, sound, and photographic materials, and the construction of a reflexive and critical narrative towards the history of the city’s representations. We designed a scenographic path composed of various supports: giant banners, wallpapers, collages, baryte, and framed photographs. These various formats aimed to build a sensorial narrative of the ethnographic encounters in Sarcelles.
We first hung giant photographic banners (250x175cm) around the room. The large prints surrounded the room to evoke the imposing feeling of being in the middle of the towers and blocks of the “grand ensemble” (large housing project).
Other creative media, such as photographic compositions, staged the material and iconic feeling of socio-political tensions I lived and documented in the field. The following 200x100cm panel, for example, stages several ethnographic materials to expose the visual tensions surrounding the visit of Emmanuel Macron during his presidential campaign to Sarcelles.
The large panel features various ethnographic materials: an aerial photograph taken before the construction of the housing complex (1948), a screen capture of a Facebook post from Macron’s account, a testimony from a resident fed up with the political use of the city’s image, and an uncaptioned photograph printed on baryta paper, framed in large format (60x60cm), which aimed to portray the frustration and exasperation felt by the residents of this banlieue on the hegemonic appropriation of the Sarcelle’s image by political authorities. This collage is an example of the type of scenographic compositions used to depict ethnographic experiences within the installation.
During the exhibition, we collaborated with local actors, especially with the International Film Festival “Image de Ville” 2023, with which we organized several conferences and which allowed the coming of diverse audiences. Multiple publications with local and national media reinforced this joint communication effort.
A central aim of the exhibition was thus to engage with large non-academic audiences. In collaboration with the Aix-Marseille Education Office, three mediators set up guided visit workshops with community center groups and primary and secondary schools. We made over 100 guided tours with 3000 people from the region. These included a visit to the exhibition but also workshops on photographic co-creation.
The workshop instructions were “Create your dreamed city.” Thus, participants produced new visual narratives through collages that we exhibited in a participatory exhibiting space in the middle of the installation. This space was regularly fed with more than 200 artworks produced by visitors on-site at the end of the installation.
This exhibition will also be exposed in the Sarcelles Mediatheque on September 2023 during the Journées Nationales du Patrimoine and the at the EHESS (Campus Condorcet) at the end of 2023.
The website was a connecting space between the exhibition and the book. It is a medium to showcase the project’s actions; it allows the public to get general information about the exhibition, the cultural mediation activities, and the book. During the project’s first phase, the website was mainly used to disseminate press kits and promote the exhibition with media and cultural partners. I also employed the website to deposit the QR code materials: texts, archives, sounds, and film materials that complemented the photographic narrative. The website finally served as a complementary space to showcase the book and the materials related to its promotion. Therefore, it allowed the promotion and sharing of multimodal diffusion experiences on an interactive platform open to the public.
The multimodal book
La cité : une anthropologie photographique
The last significant output of this project was the multimodal book La cité : une anthropologie photographique, published by the Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). This interactive object required a strong editorial involvement to emerge an innovative narrative that merges photography, sound, film, text, and archives, mainly through QR codes.
The first phase of editorial design consisted in making an editorial proposal. The Editions de l’EHESS accepted the challenge of producing an anthropological photographic book, a premiere in the history of this social sciences publishing house.
We co-constructed the graphic narrative with the publishing team in a relatively short time. The book, released at the end of April 2023, resulted from an attempt to reconsider the forms of sensorial expression of ethnographic experiences within an editorial object.
This photographic book is a response to the necessity of rethinking how we publish audiovisual materials resulting from an ethnography. Driven by a 169-picture narrative, this book expands a reflection mainly conducted in visual anthropology by ethnographic filmmakers. Through a multimodal exploration of urban experiences in the banlieue, the book allows a photographic immersion in the daily life of a group of inhabitants following sounds, film archives, and textual extracts of ordinary life.
The five-section narrative path is a critical immersion in the city. By addressing critical concerns about representing peripheral urban environments, the book revisits the visualities of French banlieues through engaged visual practices. In this way, the book aims to foster the development of new ways of conceiving, making, and sharing anthropological knowledge through photographic practices.
The 18 QR codes linked to 6 in-depth texts from my doctoral research, 5 archival videos and 7 sound atmosphere excerpts.