Questions and Answers with Nick Agafonoff
Explain what you actually do as a video ethnographer.
“At the core of ethnography is a methodology called participant-observation… and I specialize in this technique. To be a successful participant-observer you need to know how to walk in other peoples’ shoes to understand what it means to belong to their world. I empower my research subjects to take me on a journey; to induct me into their worlds, as opposed to observing them like guinea pigs. Then, as I become immersed, I make observations and conduct inquiry. But observation isn’t simply seeing and hearing – it is a reflexive process where I’m constantly trying to learn what it means to belong (or not belong), including through participation. So I’m noting language, cultural performances, idioms, artifacts, symbology, rituals, practices, rites of passage and what they mean in the context of the people that I’m studying. Where possible, I draw the attention of cultural gatekeepers to my observations through informal interviews and dialogues. All of this generates deeper insight into what it means to belong to their world. In summary, what I do is a process of participant-observation generated inquiry through which I gain a holistic understanding of who a person is and how they see themselves and their universe through their own subjective lens. I then connect this understanding to a set of strategic or commercial challenges related to a client’s business.”
How do you film, observe and interview at the same time?
“Look, this isn’t something that just anyone can do well. I guess, this is really what makes me exceptional in this field. I’ve been trained in documentary filmmaking and I have also conducted over 2000 hours of participant-observation research with a video camera. I know how to handle a camera and I operate it intuitively during ethnography sessions. The fact that I am so confident with the equipment also puts participants at ease.”
What about the camera – doesn’t that get in the way?
“You know, I always get asked this and I always answer – it’s how you set it up. I never tell participants to pretend that the camera isn’t there. That’s asking them to suspend their disbelief. Instead, I present the camera as an opportunity to tell their story. I even hand over the camera on occasions where I need to demonstrate trust and let participants’ film what they want, including me. It’s about giving over the power to the people who I am studying. Once they feel like they are in control people do behave completely naturally. In fact, once this power dynamic is established where they are in control, it gives them the confidence to reveal much more personal aspects of themselves than in your standard focus group, for instance.”
How do you analyse the data?
“Analysis happens during and after the process of participant-observation. But because I document everything on video I have developed a three-step process for honing in on the key insights during post-production. The first stage is to review all of the footage and to chunk it into key thematic groupings. The second stage is to refine each grouping into a series of insight sequences, and then begin generating key implications to contextualise key parts of the footage. The final stage is the crafting of an evocative story and personal portraits, which will provide the broader framework and subjective context for the key implications. If I’m collaborating with another research-consultant, then I involve them in every part of this process. If it is a large ethnography study then the process becomes iterative.”
What is trace evidence video?
“Trace evidence is documented facts (evidence), which emerge from a research inquiry. What someone says and what someone does is an empirical fact. By documenting these facts on video we create a trace. Good examples of trace evidence videos are accompanied shopping videos, vox pops, or usage and behaviour videos. The FlipVideo camera is a useful tool in the modern commercial researcher’s arsenal of documentation-to-representation tools and devices. It enables the easy production of amateur trace evidence videos by everyday researchers when they are interviewing and/or observing people. What we need to make sure of as research professionals is not to confuse trace evidence with ethnography, which is participant-observation based inquiry and interpretation.”
Why shouldn’t we just use any videographer or editor?
“The simple reason is that they don’t come from an insights-strategy background. What you have in me is someone with a commercial researcher’s brain and a professional filmmaker’s toolkit. I know what you need in terms of evidence and insight, as well as how to get there in the fastest, most effective way. In other words, there is no lost in translation.”
What are these things that you call living insights tools?
“I define a living insights tool as a device that can effectively bring insights to life for a broader audience, thus making them live beyond the confines of an insights-strategy bubble. This audience might be internal within an organisation, such as the sales staff, or it might be a stakeholder group, like medical professionals for a drug company. It could even be the general public in the case of government research.”
What is your role in producing them?
“I use my producer/filmmaking skills in combination with my insights-strategy brain to develop living insights tools in the form of film, animation and documentary formats. For instance, I’ve recently produced statistical animations and narration documentary formats for the Australian Bureau of Statistics bringing to life key data on social trends. I’ve also written and directed a host of hype videos, as well as segment-to-life video programs, for a range of blue chip companies. As tools these video communications articulate the key characteristics of target markets in a dynamic way to the whole organisation from the CEO to the sales staff on the shop floor, so you get essential market knowledge alignment across the whole of the business.”
What is the process that you use to create a living insights video?
“Producing a living insights tool in the form of ethnographic-esque video communications requires a different approach to exploratory video ethnography. Rather than searching for the story, insights and implications in the raw footage, we film and edit all of the elements to reflect a communication script and treatment. But first it’s crucial to understand the audience objective and how we need to communicate with them, because it is not necessarily going to be a traditional research audience. Only then do we begin a rigorous process of distilling the key data into script format and a film treatment. Here, we’re asking ourselves – what is the look and feel that we want the finished film to have and how do we want it to affect the audience? For instance, do we want it to motivate them, educate, create empathy or even disrupt? After we’ve done all this, then we can confidently go into production and post-production with clarity. So to create these tools, all of the hard work of analysis really happens in pre-production at the distillation and script-writing phase, as opposed to ethnography that requires most of the analysis in the editing phase.”
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