Skip to main content

The Act of Seeing: Kirsten Johnson's 'Cameraperson'

By Ron Deutsch

From Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. Photo: Lynsey Addario

Over the last quarter-century, Kirsten Johnson has lensed some of the most challenging and impactful documentaries of our time, ranging from Laura Poitras' The Oath and Citizenfour to Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated and The Invisible War. She contributed additional camera work to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and early in her career she shot many interviews with Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Foundation. Her other credits include Darfur Now, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 1971 and Two Towns of Jasper.

In 2009, Johnson decided to make her own documentary, focusing on two young people during the war in Afghanistan. But just as she was wrapping up production, one of the protagonists withdrew from participating in the film, for fear of her life. "We were devastated," Johnson recalls. "It really blind-sided me, but we had to recognize that the stakes for this young woman's life were much higher than what it meant to us. So we acquiesced very quickly, but I was really curious about why it happened.

"Beyond the obvious," she continues, "is that those of us who started making documentaries before the Internet existed used to think we could promise to maintain some control where people's images could go and be seen. But that stopped being true in the early 2000s, yet it took a while to get to certain countries in the world. Even as late as 2009, when I was shooting in Afghanistan, there weren't really any smart phones, and people didn't have much access to the Internet. Of course, by the time I finished in 2012, that was no longer the case. The illusion of control over the material is real."

Johnson tried to re-edit the film using only the girl's voice (which she had given Johnson permission to use), but it wasn't working. What's more, Johnson was about to give birth to twins, so she decided to take a break. But it also began a new journey, which led her to create Cameraperson, a film that explores many of the challenges to documentary filmmaking, as well as the challenges of the world around us, through Johnson's eyes and through the many films she's worked on.

"It was just one thing at a time," she says, "beginning with the question around the idea of permission and complicity, and where one thought a story was headed. Stories always change in the making of them. We all know that as documentarians, but we've all had pretty profound experiences with there being greatly unintended consequences to a story we've put out into the world. I think also what it did was to start me thinking of my own blind spots—working so hard to be aware of what I was doing and trying to understand as many dimensions as I could. But then having such a flagrant thing happen to me really made me question what this process is."

For Johnson, "blind spots" are not only what we may miss or unconsciously not see, but also what we have seen and what our minds have sheltered us from or forgotten. She decided to look back at footage from other films that had either stayed in the foreground or were buried in the background of her mind.

"One of the first sets of footage that I reached out to," she explains, "was the footage I had shot in the maternity ward in Nigeria. I had been very affected by it and hadn't been able to keep it out of mind for years. I was really shocked when I looked at it because while I had only this vague memory of a midwife's blurry face, I recognized absolutely everything. It was tens of hours of footage in a pretty rough situation, and it was shocking to me that all of this very explicit experience was inside of me, yet I was not conscious of it in any way.

"I sort of have these placeholders," she continues, "where some part of me remembers all this very explicit material. I thought maybe there was more dissonance than I think, maybe I remembered it differently. That led me to think a lot about memory, where I store this stuff, what is compartmentalization."

And so she began to reach out to other directors to revisit some of the other experiences she'd had.

Photo: Gini Reticker

"I've filmed Holocaust survivors who were 50 years after a genocide," she explains. "I've filmed Rwandans 10 years after; Bosnians after 10, then 20 years. I've filmed Liberians immediately after, and Darfurians in the middle of things. And similarly with the Afghans I filmed, what's really remarkable are the tricks war and trauma play on your mind. Your memory does become elusive, because stories are always constructed. The people who are survivors of those events often experience over time quite remarkable changes of mind—in terms of the reliability of their mind, their relationship to denial, the ways in which they cope and continue. I'm not disputing in any way those facts of the terrible things that happened to them, but sometimes, it's about total silence--probably more than half of the Holocaust survivors I'd filmed had never spoken about what had happened to them. Some people just don't want to think about what they experienced, in order to continue.

"There's no question that the accumulation and doing things at a certain level has been deeply impactful on me," Johnson maintains. "I'm still completely exploring this. There's no question that I've experienced vicarious trauma, but one of the things Cameraperson is interested in is how violence, war and/or an incident of abuse affects people in general."

And at that point, Johnson realized there was a film to be made, and that film was about all these quandaries. She began editing together footage from the many films she'd worked on, and when she showed a cut to her producer, Marilyn Ness, it was so intense, they "affectionately" dubbed it "the trauma cut." So she started looking for another collaborator, and she found editor Nels Bangerter.

"One of my initial questions for Nels was, 'What is your ideal way of working?'" Johnson recalls. "And he said, 'I really love to talk as much as possible about everything a director thinks is relevant to the work. Then I want to see the footage, and where I can see the ideas of the director, that is the footage I choose.' I was so interested in that because it was so similar to the way I work as a cameraperson—discussing as much as possible all of the themes, ideas, hopes and psychological insight the director believes to be a part of the story, and then letting me feel it and follow it as it is happening.

"What we eventually agreed to was that I was interested in a huge range of ideas and I wanted to talk about all these in the film," she continues. "Some people would have stopped me and said, 'There's not really space for that in this film.' I would say, 'I want to talk about religion, memory, PTSD, and I want to talk about conflict and post-conflict…' And Nels didn't ever put a stop on that stuff."

The idea of not having any narration in Cameraperson and letting the imagery speak for itself began when Johnson was looking at other editors. And while both she and Bangerter had their initial doubts it could work, it did. "What I loved about working with Nels," she notes, "was that he'd have these very strong rules or constraints, but then he would completely break them on an intuitive level if it made sense to him. So we were trying to keep footage at its length and how I had shot it. But then again, we have a total montage scene with music. It broke all of our rules, but loving something was also one of our rules.

Photo: Majlinda Hoxha

"Another thing we consciously did in its construction was that we wanted the film to creep up on the viewer in the way my experience crept up on me," Johnson continues. "It was really Nels who wanted to ensure that the initial shots of hearing me, seeing me run, breath, sneeze, talk about how I frame a shot—all of those things had to come early so that I am present for people. If they started to forget, then here would come my voice that would remind them that I was still there. Like the scene with the boxer, everyone is afraid he's going to turn around and punch me, and then everyone sees him looking for me as I'm going down the hall after him. Now if you'd seen that shot in the film, you would never have thought about the cameraperson. It was so fun to know it could work. We were really afraid it would need voiceover."

Turning the conversation to other issues, Johnson references a list, which is posted on the film's website. "I came up with the list while I was making the film," she explains. "There was one point where I really wanted to say all of those things in the film, and it's so great that I got to a place where I learned it could be implicit instead of explicit. But it's also nice to have the list here.

"One of the people I dedicate the film to is Mamie Till Mobley [Emmett Till's mother]," Johnson continues. "We filmed her in Chicago when she was advocating against the death penalty. I always think of her and her incredible bravery to open her son's casket and show how her son had been bludgeoned to death and the way his image impacted the dialogue around racism at that moment in history. So I do believe that in certain moments and certain times it is critically important to show the most terrible things. But I also think one always has to question, Who is showing whom, on behalf of what? Is it exploitative? I'm very much an advocate for thinking about whether it is yours to show, and whether you've earned the right to show it or not.

"I also think there are ways you can film people in which you betray them," Johnson admits. "It could be as simple as with someone who really cares about how they look; that's a betrayal. I think you have an obligation to film people in the most dignified, human way possible, no matter who they are or what they've done. But then we all have unconscious biases that we often don't understand. Anyone can read your images and say that's an exploitative image, and you don't consider it to be that. You might be right or you might be wrong. Who sees it and who sees it that way are questions that I want to be in the conversation around Cameraperson. I want us to understand that it's not that simple to film people with dignity, or to be decent as a documentarian. The camera comes with a whole extra set of dilemmas we don't always acknowledge.

"I do believe it's possible to film in these incredibly politically charged situations, but it demands a huge amount of thinking," she continues. "If you're filming humans, there is a complexity there always. So if you're trying to make things that matter, you have to ask, What are the things that matter?

"Again, one cannot pretend that a work is not without bias, or without imperfection, or that there are open questions. Storytelling can be a thing that becomes hermetic, and sort of claims a truth. Films may be addressing issues, but issues are not simple. I'm interested in storytelling that allows for a multiplicity of perspectives and the acknowledgment of the lack of control we actually have in these situations."

Johnson's list raises other questions about the relationship between filmmakers and their subjects—a word, not surprisingly, she isn't entirely comfortable with. "There's not really a word for what the relationship between you and the people you're filming is," she says. "I really appreciate that people check themselves on calling people 'characters.' Even 'subject' is a challenging word. What the accurate term is, I'm not sure. Maybe that's something I will find with this film. You plus a camera is different. You're not just human when you have a camera with you.

"In terms of the question of when or if it is appropriate or necessary to ever put down the camera and involve oneself," she continues, "that's why the axe scene with the little kids is in the movie. I got lucky in that moment, but I might not have. It might not have been okay that I was filming if the kid had hit himself with the axe—and that feels like a metaphor for many situations where you don't act and not acting might mean something terrible will happen, and you will be a bystander to that moment. Yes, my job in some ways is to be a bystander, but you have to always ask, At what cost and to what end? I question all of that at every moment, which is exactly what that scene is showing: how, moment to moment, it's okay, then it's not okay, then it's okay, then not okay."

Johnson reiterates that these questions are not just for other filmmakers and audiences, but also for herself. "Taking this film out into the world is helping me think about all of these things," she concludes. "I guess I would say, Don't underestimate the impact of violence on any human being, myself included. I want people to keep making films and I want to keep making films, but I also want to ask all these questions and acknowledge all these realities."

Cameraperson is screening in theaters this fall through Janus Films.

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate-producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.