Kirsten Johnson Talks Tragedy, Docs, and Recognizing the ‘Eyes of Every Person I Had Filmed’


The role of the documentary cinematographer is singular in filmmaking, and underexamined. More so than her feature counterparts, the documentary cameraperson is a sort of diviner, a seeker of moments. Her instinct for the extraordinary instant, and the patience with which she invites and then awaits its arrival, marks her as a uniquely vital collaborator. She also finds herself in the odd position of doing for a living what a culture of documentation has made commonplace, if not pernicious: holding up a camera to the world.

Kirsten Johnson has held up a camera in more parts of our world than most people can find on a map. In her twenty-plus years as a documentary cinematographer, she has traveled to Darfur, China, Yemen, Bosnia, and parts between, working on films including Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Fahrenheit 9-11, The Invisible War, and Citizenfour. In 2009, a grant sent her to Afghanistan, where she worked on a film about schooling for Afghan girls. When it appeared that film’s release would pose a threat to its subjects, Johnson focused her attention on two Afghan teenagers, one of whom eventually rescinded permission to use images of her face. Reeling, Johnson sought to incorporate into the project the difficulties involved and the questions they raised — professional and personal. The unlikely result of that process is Cameraperson, an elegant, startling, collage-style memoir comprising outtakes and other footage from Johnson’s varied career.

“I really hoped for a film that could hold as many of my questions as possible. That in many ways is how the form emerged,” Johnson told me in a recent interview. Cameraperson juxtaposes testimonials from Bosnian rape victims with footage from a Penn State football game; we move from sites of epic tragedy to images of Johnson’s father and young children considering the burial of a small bird. The decision to include personal footage clarified Johnson’s sense of the project: The film’s images of Johnson’s mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s before her death in 2007, were a source of profound ambivalence.

“I was shooting knowing it wasn’t OK for her,” Johnson said of images of her mother wandering her childhood ranch in a daze. Toward the end, Johnson raised her camera, “completely on the level of instinct — like, I’m going to lose her soon, and I want some way to keep her. I swore to myself that no one would ever see that footage except for me. I didn’t even look at that footage for seven years after her death, until I started to reach into the other footage from other films, and I realized that permission and consent were at the core of my questioning.”

A second turning point involved abandoning voiceover: Cameraperson denotes only place, its narrative emerging from oblique angles, a sense of experience and unspoken ideas coalescing into story. Working with editor Nels Bangerter, Johnson created an operating constraint: “It must exist in the footage; there can be no voice guiding you.”

Returning to old footage, Johnson made an uncanny discovery. “I thought I couldn’t remember anything, and I would look at the footage, and I would recognize the eyes of every person I had filmed,” she said. Seeking out a pivotal moment in Yemen, where she shot with Laura Poitras, Johnson was surprised by an exchange with a fixer over the nature of their project — was it journalism or entertainment? Or both?

Along with examining that question, Cameraperson attempts, through its loose, stone-skipping structure, to replicate something of a documentarian’s vagabond existence. Johnson sought to convey the exhilaration of that life but also the creeping sense “that I had taken in more traumatic information than I understood, and [more than] I could actually manage. We wanted to work that into the structure — it feels good, it feels good, and then all of a sudden it feels really bad. You don’t see it coming.”

Though she appears only in glimpses, Johnson makes her presence felt and occasionally heard behind the camera. We hear her soothe a nervous subject, murmur her relief when two Bosnian kids give up their struggle with an ax, and exult when it appears a baby whose birth she is filming in a Nigerian hospital will survive. The question of when and how to intervene adds to Cameraperson a gnawing unease. When the mother of that newborn began to hemorrhage, Johnson and her colleagues paid for the blood that saved her life.But especially in the developing world, interventions involving money are fraught. “What feels like the right gesture, the generous gesture, the supportive thing…can often be ridiculously disruptive, and actually life-threatening, to the people involved. You have to be very careful about those choices.”

In Cameraperson, the professional is inextricably personal. We witness Johnson’s return to Bosnia, where she reconnects with the peasant Muslim family whose postwar return to their home she had documented. One of her subjects, a mother who has never ventured far from her children, encouraged Johnson to bring her own kids on her next visit, so they might see how their mother has spent her days, the people and places that have claimed her as surely as she has captured them. “In so many ways I thought I was making this movie to contend with the past, and to contend with my loss of my mother, and memory, and history,” Johnson said. “But in that moment she helped me to realize that I’m also making it for the future. I’m also leaving evidence for my children of who I am and who I was.”