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From the Field

Photography, Ethnography and Exhibitions in the Projects

The Rugbywomen of Sarcelles
Pictures taken by photographer and sociologist Camilo León-Quijano with the initial aim of understanding the sporting experience of a female rugby team in a Paris suburb led to a broader project and exhibition called The Rugbywomen. In light of this, we consider the heuristic advantages of photographic practices for ethnographic research.

How can photography be used to study the social world, and in particular the experiences of residents of a suburban town? This is the question that led me to begin an ethnographic survey on the urban experience in the northern Paris suburb of Sarcelles in 2015. To study these experiences, I engaged in a process of visual creation. In this article, I will present a part of this survey that deals with the sporting experience of a group of female rugby players from Sarcelles, known as Les Rugbywomen (“The Women Rugby Players”). [1] I will briefly describe how photography and sound recording were used to understand the methodological and epistemological issues involved in the use of audiovisual materials in ethnographic fieldwork.

Figure 1. The rugbywomen of Collège Chantereine in Sarcelles

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

Shared photography

Since the late 19th century, photography has been a medium for illustrating books, articles and scientific journals. Howard Becker (1974, 1978) and his disciple Douglas Harper (1998, 2012) defined the formal and theoretical foundations of visual sociology, the central tenet of which is that photography is a record of reality.

While realistic-scientific currents have often advanced the evidential nature of the still image, the approach proposed here aims to explore the social world from a different perspective. By exploring the multiple sensory modalities of experience and considering photography as an expressive means of sharing, the photographer’s engagement makes it possible to study social phenomena through a situated practice. This approach opens up the possibility of participating in a collective experience. Taking photography as a means of expression, which can make an experience manifest, allows interaction with respondents.

The taking of photographs then becomes a resource for understanding the sensory, bodily and narrative dimension of the experience. By approaching social phenomena in this way, I explored the sporting practices of female rugby players in Sarcelles according to an anthropology of phenomenological inspiration, both critical and sensory (Cox et al. 2015; Pink 2013). This reflexive approach advocates the centrality of the researcher’s subjectivity in the production and representation of ethnographic knowledge through the application of practices centred on sensory experience (Pink 2013, pp. 34–45).

Female rugby players – the rugbywomen

Sarcelles is located in the department of Val-d’Oise, 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Paris. Well known for the large Flanades–Lochères housing project, the town is made up of two sectors: the Village, in the north, a semi-rural and pavilion-shaped area grouped around an old church; and “the housing project”, located three kilometers (two miles) further south. Following the Second World War, the baby boom and the influx of workers and migrants encouraged the construction of large housing projects on the urban periphery. Sarcelles–Lochères stands out as a “modern housing project,” emblematic of the diversity of populations; a functional development designed by architects Jacques-Henri Labourdette and Roger Boileau.

Today, the “new town” of young workers and “little dreamers” is an “old housing project”: Sarcelles is a crossroads of very heterogeneous cultures and lifestyles. [2] As a result of the “ghetto” media coverage of Sarcelles, an imaginary world based on “community withdrawal” has settled in the town. The anti-Semitic attacks and the 2014 “riots” have fueled the image of a so-called “social divide.” The inhabitants thus coexist in a socio-spatially stigmatized town. A growing stigma that fuels the feeling of urban confinement and ghettoization.

The place of origin of sarcellite (“Sarcellitis”), the so-called “disease of the projects” denounced by the press in the 1960s, the town has been the subject of countless media, cinematographic and scientific productions. A second, equally powerful in its effects, evokes marginality, misery, violence and exclusion, has been added to a first imaginary based on distress and mistrust (Canteux 2004, 2014).

Figure 2. Koumba, 16, rugby player. View of Sarcelles from her apartment

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

I began photographing the lives of Sarcelles residents in 2015, in parallel with a “traditional” ethnographic field (observation, field notebook, interviews). [3] I made myself known in several circles and at the end of 2016 I met Florian, the coach of the UNSS women’s rugby team at Collège Chantereine (a secondary school for students aged 11 to 15). In order to highlight their sporting commitment, he suggested that I take a “photo subject” on the female rugby players he was coaching. So I started photographing the players’ daily lives on a regular basis. I attended the games and training sessions, but also the school and extracurricular activities of these teenagers. Photographing justified my regular presence among them. I was not only there to ask questions or observe, [4] but also to produce images. [5] Up until July 2017, I regularly followed the progress of the rugbywomen once or twice a week, especially on Wednesday afternoons, the usual day for training and tournaments. I had access to school and extracurricular activities (shopping, meetings in the town, outings in Saint-Denis). In doing so, I forged bonds of friendship with one of them, who in turn invited me to meet her family and her domestic space. Finally, I conducted in-depth interviews with three of them. I thus carried out a triple investigative activity: note-taking, photography and sound recording. This multifaceted approach gave me access to a wide variety of information, especially because sound recording was a participatory activity: by teaching three of the rugbywomen to record sound, I often left them the equipment so that they could record what they wanted.

Figure 3. Assa making a sound recording at Garges–Sarcelles station

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

Photography, in this survey, was a way to build a narrative about the group’s experience. It wasn’t just about taking pictures of everything I observed; I was involved in creating a visual narrative, which involved aesthetic and narrative choices. The images were a way of affirming a certain idea of the experience, but also of the values promoted on the field of play: self-confidence, discipline, solidarity, the enhancement of the bodies and the sporting capacities of girls. The underwater, black and white, the distortion of wide-angle lenses and the predominance of shapes over colours were for me a way of “depicting” the daily life of the rugbywomen through a precise aesthetic commitment. Instead of neutrally “representing” the “footprint” of an observed situation, I post-produced a narrative based on black and white images. Engaged in a sport often perceived as “too masculine” or “too violent” for girls, rugby was a way to assert yourself and gain self-confidence. The aesthetic choice of the contrasting black and white images was for me a way of depicting their strength and tenacity on the ground, but also in their daily lives in Sarcelles.

Figure 4. A rugby match

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

As a result of this work, I presented an ephemeral exhibition in June 2017, thanks to external funding. [6] With Florian, the coach, we posted 23 photographs of 3 × 4 metres (180 linear metres of prints) on the exterior walls of the school. To inaugurate the exhibition, a vernissage was organised and more than a hundred people (the rugbywomen’s families, Sarcellois, local elected officials, association leaders, teachers, local journalists, sportsmen and women) attended the presentation of the project. With the interviews, sounds and images, I also made a sound slideshow (12 min.) that was projected on the day of the opening. Following this experience, I analyzed the respondents’ reception of the story, their reappropriation of audiovisual materials and “conversational practices” (Gunthert 2015) on social networks.

Figure 5. Temporary photographic exhibition titled #LesRugbywomen at Collège Chantereine

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

Figure 6. Vernissage and projection of the sound slideshow (diaporama sonore) at Collège Chantereine

© Camilo León-Quijano, 2017.

Once the project was completed (end of July), I made a shorter sound slideshow by combining interviews, sounds and photographs taken in the field. It received the 2017 Sound Slideshow Award and was therefore covered in the media on a national scale. By focusing on the reception and circulation of the story, I analysed the modalities of appropriation [7] of the slide show by very different actors: respondents, Sarcelles residents and local media.

An important part of the survey was the analysis of the reception of this project, on the one hand, at the time of exposure, and on the other hand during the media coverage of the sound slide show. As a result, I looked at the circulation of visual materials, particularly on social networks. Generally speaking, the project was favorably received by the respondents, who then shared it in different ways. This has led to “conversational practices” on some platforms, such as Facebook. For example, two of the respondents shared on their Facebook wall the slideshow link with the following comments (in French):

“Women’s rugby in Sarcelles, as seen by a talented photographer called Camilo León-Quijano. Well done to these young women who are living their sporting passion—a passion that has been perfectly captured by the photographer.”

“I am so proud of my town, of my people, of Camilo, and of his sympathetic view of Sarcelles.”

In a media context marked by the hegemonic presence of a discourse on exclusion and misery, I wanted to get involved in a project that explores social issues in Sarcelles in a different way. I combined photographic practice and ethnographic method to produce a narrative centred on the experience of the rugbywomen themselves. The production and dissemination of this story was a way of “depicting” the subjective and collective experience of the actors through a creative activity.

The resulting knowledge is rooted in the sensory and reflective dimension of the visual narrative production process. Rather than a tool for extracting “ethnographic data,” [8] photography becomes a resource for working with and not on a set of actors. Therefore, photographing, exposing and disseminating is not really, in this case, a “presentation” activity, but a sharing activity. [9]

What meaning can the association of photographic practice and ethnographic inquiry have? The main interest of this proposal lies in the ability to build on the gap opened by the digital transition. The ease of access to this “republic of images with radical equality” (Gunthert 2015, p. 15) makes it possible to imagine new forms of dialogue between the social sciences and photography. By multiplying multimedia practices and sharing some of the results of ethnographic surveys in a variety of media (with language adapted to wider audiences), new audiences could be interested in scientific productions at the same time as new collaborations between researchers and civil society could take place.


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To cite this article:

Camilo León-Quijano & translated by Oliver Waine, “Photography, Ethnography and Exhibitions in the Projects. The Rugbywomen of Sarcelles”, Metropolitics, 11 January 2019. URL :

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