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Inside Out: Kirsten Johnson

By Kirsten Johnson

Don't let these photos of gear fool you. Over the course of my nearly three-decade-long career, I have almost never brought the same gear on a shoot twice. And I have almost always forgotten something crucial. People, mainly soundpeople, have been saving my day for years! Let me advocate here for how strongly I believe in developing ongoing relationships with soundpeople and working with the same ones as consistently as possible. Over the course of my career, I have mainly worked with the great Wellington Bowler, Judy Karp and Sean O'Neil. The better your relationship with a soundperson, the better cameraperson you will be, hands down. If they know you and love you, they will have your back in ways you can’t imagine.

When I am headed to a shoot, I try to travel light and have my head filled with as many questions about what we will shoot as possible. If we are going to a country I've never visited or into a situation I am deeply unfamiliar with, I try to find a great novel written by someone who's lived it. I do research on my own visual terms, apart from my work with the director. That can mean leafing through my own photo books, searching online, going to exhibits or seeing other films that relate. By the time I leave for a shoot I am somehow trying to be living in the imagination of the film.

I also am always trying to do too much, packing at the last minute, and rushing out the door for the flight. I have constant fantasies that I can show up on a shoot with everything I need, but the truth is, each shoot teaches you what it needs when it happens. Before I go, I know I really have to pay attention to whether I can pick something up extra if I need to or there’s no chance in the world for me to resupply. What I don't ever do is forget my passport or miss the flight. That's my only consistent ritual. One of the things I have begun to believe about myself over time is that I love to improvise and that when I find solutions in situ, I become more attuned to the lives of people who are living there.

1. 2. 3. Canon Lenses (For the first time in my career, I've been able to buy some prime lenses of my own. I have a 50mm and a 14mm, and I am saving up for a 24mm. The zoom is a 70-200mm.)

4. Wind-Up rabbit (One or both of my kids sneak a toy into my bag to remind me of them.)

5. Pec Pad Wipes (I have this supply for lens-cleaning, but I often use the soft cotton shirt I am wearing.)

6. Lens Cleaner (if I get something besides dust on the lens)

7. Bag of cords

8. Media Hardcase (You have to protect your shot footage with your life and always have a fresh card.)

9. Mini roll of gaffer tape

10. Hard drives

11. Sony headphones

12. Pair of scissors (I borrow this from the soundperson)

13. The critically important 3-2 prong adapter for foreign plugs.

14. AA batteries

15. Water! My most important shooting accessory.

16. Pen (always borrowing a Sharpie from the sound person)

17. Goya Jasmine Rice (One of my signatures: Buy a bag of rice on the road, use it as a support to level the camera on any surface and then give it to the people you’ve filmed with.)

18. Canon EF 70-200mm

Kirsten Johnson's film—the Oscars-shortlisted Cameraperson, now available via The Criterion Collection—was one of three documentaries to make it onto The New York Times and Washington Post lists of the Top Ten films of 2016. She is currently working on a tragicomedy about death with her father, as well as a global look at how ethics and security have changed for camerapeople in the 21st century.