Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (prospective) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.
How did you get into ethnographic filmmaking?
It sounds corny, but it’s the plain truth: I wanted to do ethnographic documentaries since I was 13 years old. I stumbled upon such a film on French television, and it seemed like a cool job to do, so I researched it and aimed my studies exactly towards that goal. I ended up doing pure ethnography first (in France), then visual anthropology and film (in Canada, where I continued my studies). I returned to France to do more visual anthropology with Jean Rouch – a pioneer in this field – focusing on urban anthropology of the Senegalese community in Paris. I then worked in film as an assistant director for many years, and as a director for corporate films and various TV productions.
Talk about your company, Monde Moderne, and how it came to be.
One day, I came across a group of consultants while I was doing a corporate film on the French steel industry. I realized there was finally a need for my unique combination of anthropology and film for marketing or design research. I understood I had a niche there and created Monde Moderne.
When I created Monde Moderne, I thought it was simple enough for the irony to be understood (“modern world”), but I found out that North Americans often think of it as an Italian furniture brand! We are based in Toronto, Canada. But I often commute between Paris and the States.
We are a boutique firm, so our own capabilities adapt to the demand of our clients. Our spectrum is indeed pretty wide, so I can be alone, traveling, shooting and researching, or in my office editing, or we can have multilingual teams working in parallel across the world at the same time. I alternate from periods of intense traveling (when I shoot) to periods of complete hibernation (very appropriate in the Canadian winter), where I hardly venture away from my neighbourhood and literally spend the day editing away at my desk. I love the alternation, but being in the field is my life.
This work was a whole new world for me. I was already familiar with corporate communication and advertising, but not with market research and even less with design in the way it is used today. So, it was a learning curve. I also started from nowhere, with zero network. Today, thanks to a couple of colleagues that I met along the way who have become friends, and thanks to the reputation we have built throughout the years with our various clients worldwide, we have a much bigger network and our name pops up when there is a need for insights through video. Many companies have now embraced the ethnographic approach as a complementary angle to their qualitative research, and the benefits of video are now taken as a given.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?
I am most passionate about the rapport established in fieldwork, how essential it is, and how much time really is of the essence in order to obtain meaningful results. These are the kinds of things that should be a given, and that are obvious to a first year graduate, but are still not clear even among people who sell applied anthropology.
Since the business world is driven by money, short timelines and the need for quick insights, how have you managed to do the type and quality of projects you prefer (i.e., longer, more in-depth work)?
I compromise. I suggest to my clients what I think would be best for them, ideal even, and then I comply with their constraints and try to deliver the best within them. This is not so much about doing what I like, but what is the most useful for my clients as far as what I say ethnographic film can bring to the table.
What role has your anthropology training played your job as an ethno-filmmaker?
My job is defined by what comes from both my anthropological and filmmaking training. The anthropology side allows me to establish a unique rapport with respondents and to unearth insights. The film side allows to capture them and to display them properly in a form that is relevant and has some communication value. This is also what we look for in the other ethno-filmmakers that work for Monde Moderne.
How have you navigated the world of business and design as an anthropologist?
In my corporate communications, I sometimes think that I should not say that I have been trained as a social anthropologist, or even use the word ethnography. It is confusing for many and has now been misused and abused over and over. The other thing is I do not consider myself as an anthropologist in the same sense that an academic would. I am a filmmaker with an academic social anthropology background, which is quite different. The continuous preaching of what ethnography is or should be, and what kind of benefits it can provide, is a daily task.
Even though the word “ethnography” is all over market research services now, very few seem to really apprehend what it covers, and I believe this is dangerous in the long term because it will not bring what it could be bringing when not applied seriously. Clients will treat it as a trend. And we all know what happens to trends, right?
You’ve done a lot of films on different subjects – what ties them all together?
One of the most interesting projects I have worked on thus far is a study on how Americans eat that we conducted for Pacific Ethnography for Wendy’s a couple of years ago. A few things made it meaningful, but the most important part was that we had time. I worked both as an ethnographer (no camera) and then as a film ethnographer (with camera). We spent one week per family observed. This is real ethnography! More recently, I learned a lot while conducting a research project on the notion of service in the luxury industry around the world. This was very intellectually enlightening.
What all of these studies/films have in common is that the people we come across are always at the center. The encounters can be of an incredibly intimate nature, sometimes with people and other times in places that I would never come across otherwise. But every project is a different adventure. For example, I recently did something on “cat ladies” in Nashville, TN. This was quite a different experience from the project exploring French society and health I was involved in the following week!
How is practicing anthropology different or similar to how you envisioned it when training as a student?
I had no clue I would work for corporations. I didn’t even know this was a possibility. I came into this hoping to work with indigenous people worldwide, but I also needed to make a living.
What advice do you have for current anthropology students, and for anthropologists for marketing their skills to employers?
Don’t ignore the “applied anthropology” classes, and if you’re interested in working in business and design, venture a little more on the market research side of things in order to better understand how an anthropological approach can be put to use in unique ways. In the quest for innovation, the private sector is increasingly relying on the social sciences; they are seen as a great tool for the very specific purpose of “understanding the consumer (or the user).”
Editor’s note: You can visit Bruno’s website at www.mondemoderne.com and connect with him on LinkedIn. Bruno also recently contributed a chapter titled “Seduction On the Field” to the forthcoming volume “The Handbook of Anthropology in Business”, edited by Rita Denny and Patricia Sunderland (May 2014, Left Coast Press).
Check out the rest of the interviews in the Anthropologists in Practice series here.