Field work: Jacob Langvad Nilsson worked with Nike on an ethnographic study of Latin American teen culture.

Observations of an observer

A visual-ethnographer’s insights from the field—By Jacob Langvad Nilsson

Youth are much more connected today than, say, 15 years ago. We are all more connected. And the same thing is happening in emerging markets, there are smart phones and internet cafes, and people know what is going on in other countries.

The photographs found here stem from ethnographic research projects from various emerging markets. In one study I was commissioned to study the football culture among teenage boys in Brazil, Mexico and Argentina on behalf of Nike, a sportswear and equipment supplier. Another study focused on the new generation of Brazilian youth in a broader context. The insights delivered upon return from our journey helped formulate future strategies for innovation for the company, and led to successful growth patterns upon implementation on a local level.


Also known as participant-observation, ethnographic methods include entering a subject’s own environment: in the modern world, this includes their living room, school, the supermarket, the beauty parlor, or the streets–settings of their daily existence, and a lot of the questions are about their world, and their aspirations, what they want from products and from the future. When shooting ethnographic photography, I use my education and experience as a photojournalist, and shoot a great deal more than I would if it was for an editorial story. I take pictures of things that would not be of value to a magazine publication, such as items on the shelf or in the bathroom that help to understand the culture we are observing. For example, in this case we documented what people had in their sports bags, photographed each item, and had them talk about it.


One thing that really struck me during this research was the level of optimism about the future we found in the youth of Brazil and South America. There was a significant optimism for the future because the country was changing so much. I saw this in the amount of developments, the amount of malls or international brands present in places such as Manila. I was staying in a tiny city built inside Manila where everything was built within the last 5 years. When I looked at Google Maps to see satellite images of the area of where I was staying, there was nothing but dirt and crates. But today there is an entire city, called the Global City of Makati inside Manila!

Jacob youthsolo

In the end, the value of getting closer to the consumers is to better understand their cultures and behaviors, and in the process develop aspiring and meaningful products and services relevant to their lives. I feel that, for companies and clients that want to get into emerging markets, I’m helping them understand how people live, and how reality looks in these places, so they have more than just statistics. I feel very lucky to get to visit all these places and talk to people. And I know it is meaningful for the people I shoot.

Written by Jacob Langvad Nilsson for Peeps
Photography ©Jacob Langvad Nilsson

Jacob Langvad Nilsson is a Danish editorial photographer and visual ethnographer. His work has been described as having an “unembellished yet informed documentary style,” which emerges from an intense labor of subtlety and precision. Jacob’s research work focuses primarily on human-centered design research that inspires future product development. He wishes to capture people and their customs as they are—not as we desire them to be—in order to help product designers, government policy makers, and international brands make culturally relevant decisions. Jacob also works occasionally as a freelance photographer for select editorial and commercial clients.

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