Woman With a Movie Camera: The Art of Not Looking Away in Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson”




THIS YEAR’S Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina, singled out cinematographer Kirsten Johnson in its annual filmmaker tribute — an honor typically reserved for directors. While the role of a camera-for-hire is often cast as artistically subordinate to a director, Johnson’s latest film Cameraperson uncovers the improvisatory poetics inherent to documentary cinematography, a revelation that threatens the neat and hierarchical divisions of cinematic labor as it is cataloged in film credits.

To be a documentary cameraperson often demands an occupational commitment to mute invisibility. Participatory and reflexive documentaries aside, consider how rare it is to hear a documentary cameraperson’s voice. Think, too, of the Interrotron, a machine devised by Errol Morris to induce an interviewee to gaze straight into the camera, creating the illusion that the on-screen subject speaks directly to the viewer. In the face of documentary film’s illusory immediacy, we would do well to remember the camerapeople who work to bring images back to us. A cameraperson is placed at the nexus of intimate, precarious, and often dangerous relationships between places and bodies. Far from invisible, she must be almost freakishly hyperpresent — both vulnerable to the moment and able to manipulate it as it unfolds, amenable to the strangest and most unpleasant of circumstances, all while framing images that have the potential to delight and instruct. She must be self-aware and able to transcend the confines of self-consciousness at the same time. Her labor requires a mode of thinking that, as the feminist film phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack might say, is invariably carnal.

Johnson’s work as a cameraperson began in 1990 for a film that would eventually become Derrida, the 2002 docuportrait of Jacques Derrida, directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. In interviews for the film, Derrida defaulted to deconstruction, scrutinizing the fictions of documentary film as a form of theoretical investigation and personal deflection. “[T]his is what you call cinéma vérité?” balked Derrida. “Everything is false.” For Johnson, Derrida was a formative debut ­— a crash course in the philosophical dimensions of documentary filmmaking and a boot camp in filming an evasive and difficult subject.

In the 25 years since she began filming Derrida, Johnson has built a career extracting footage from the thorniest of material. Her cinematographic contributions include filming on location at Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray for Laura Poitras’s The Oath (2010) to filming female soldiers who were raped by their male colleagues in the US military in The Invisible War (2012), another Dick and Ziering film. Her credits include two of the most successful and controversial documentaries of the past few decades: the highest-grossing documentary of all time, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014), which took the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2015. Despite these successes, Johnson’s efforts had received little mention before this year, her presence deliberately effaced within her body of work.

But in Cameraperson (2016), Johnson is intensely present, as she is the chief object of inquiry. Her second feature-length solo directorial effort, the film delves into 25 years of past footage, shot mostly as a cinematographer for other directors, to stitch together a cinematic self-portrait. Johnson’s extraordinary and poetic film accomplishes for documentary cinematography what Christian Frei’s War Photographer (2001) did for photojournalism, illuminating the complex ethical, philosophical, and political stakes behind a craft that remains mostly concealed from the lay consumer of images.

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Cameraperson mines footage — both previously released and unreleased — for evidence of Johnson’s off-screen existence, including sneezes, giggles, gasps, and whispers. This soundscape of involuntary noises and private utterances reinscribes Johnson in the off-screen space. We hear her sharply inhale at the sight of lightning; we are jarred by bumpy camera movements as she maneuvers to find just the right angle and observe as she plucks stray leaves of grass in front of the lens to get an unobstructed shot. In another context, such footage might be unusable, but in Cameraperson, these moments offer vital evidence of Johnson’s on-the-fly artistry.

To compose the film, Johnson adopted a literary method. She communicated her directorial vision with film editor Nels Bangerter via haikus, a poetic constraint that lent the film conceptual clarity while blunting the determining power of Johnson’s memories. The film is comprised of vignettes punctuated by simple intertitles on a black background. This pared-back minimalism lends Cameraperson a raw simplicity absent from earlier iterations of similar footage. Eschewing a linear, chronological narrative in favor of a fragmented, associative mode of storytelling, Cameraperson presents moments from across her 25-year oeuvre as part of an extended dialogue, revealing the remarkable consistency to Johnson’s cinematographic approach. Derrida might call it a signature.

In the first scene of Derrida, the French philosopher cautions Johnson as she traverses a busy six-lane road without paying attention to where she is walking. “She sees everything around me but she is totally blind,” Derrida says to a crowd of followers. “That’s the image of the philosopher who falls in the well, while looking at the stars.” Derrida’s off-hand remark is reloaded with meaning in Cameraperson, masterfully rewoven by Bangerter into a fresh tapestry of scenes that reveal Johnson in an array of perilous positions. From filming outside an al-Qaeda prison in Afghanistan to capturing the undisclosed burial site of a USB drive containing NSA files illegally downloaded by Edward Snowden, Johnson has often risked falling in the well to get the story. Along with Poitras, Johnson’s camerawork has placed her on watch lists that have resulted in her detainment at borders.

As Cameraperson makes clear, the risks of Johnson’s métier are emotional, too. Johnson’s camerawork has brought her face-to-face with innumerable sites of death and suffering, including Wounded Knee, Nyamata Church in Rwanda, the World Trade Center, and Darfur. By redeploying B-roll footage of these sites ­as long takes, Cameraperson highlights the affective burden of ritually spending long periods of time filming sites of mass atrocity in silent, immobile concentration. Johnson is especially practiced in the sensitive task of filming women who have experienced trauma, from rape victims (in Women, War & Peace [2011] and The Invisible War [2012]) to doctors and patients at embattled abortion clinics in the Deep South (Trapped [2016]). In one particularly poignant scene in Cameraperson, Johnson interviews a therapist in the town of Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Muslim women were placed in camps and systematically raped and tortured during the war of the early 1990s. The therapist describes how the stories of her clients have infiltrated her dreams, an admission that, in the context of Cameraperson, gestures toward Johnson’s experience behind the camera as well. Using the testimony of others to indirectly signal her own collateral trauma, Johnson hints at the emotional consequences of her own work but avoids making herself into a victim. Such an approach allows Johnson to be at the center of the film’s inquiry while remaining outside of the frame at the same time. 

While Johnson is skilled at building trust with the most vulnerable of subjects, such a skill carries with it an ethical responsibility. The relationship between documentary cameraperson and subject is, after all, radically asymmetrical: a subject’s life is opened up for public consumption, while the cameraperson remains silent and unseen. Although Cameraperson doesn’t dwell too deeply on this imbalance, Johnson nevertheless seems aware that she must give something of herself, too. The film includes footage of people and places close to Johnson’s heart — her mother Catherine, dying of Alzheimer’s, and her twins, Felix and Viva, at play.

As a film that gleans from a career’s worth of footage to stitch together a collage-like cinematic self-portrait, Cameraperson strongly evokes the late documentaries of Agnès Varda ­— particularly the French filmmaker’s 2008 essay-film The Beaches of Agnès. Nevertheless, while Beaches relies upon Varda’s bright and comical physical presence as a central motif, Johnson barely appears onscreen in Cameraperson. Nor does Johnson offer additional voice-over narration or commentary beyond what appears in the original footage. It is a film about Johnson with few images of Johnson in it. Her understated presence within the film functions on many levels: it is a pragmatic necessity, as the film is mostly reconstructed from footage from other, nonpersonal projects; it also appears as an ethical position, perhaps reflecting a recognition of what it might mean to make her story too big, imposing a self-serving narrative too forcefully on the lives and suffering of others.

The title, Cameraperson, hints at the modesty of Johnson’s approach — a more workaday title than the virtually synonymous “cinematographer” or “director of photography.” It is also gender-neutral term. As the film and television industry continues to be heavily scrutinized for its gender inequity, cinematography remains perhaps one of the most imbalanced of its branches. Women make up less than four percent of members in the American Society of Cinematographers and no woman has ever been nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.

But Cameraperson is not a film about the trials and tribulations of a female cameraperson as much as it is an examination of the work and life of a top documentary cinematographer at the height of her powers. Johnson’s work stands on its own merit, and she isn’t asking for special treatment on account of her gender. Nonetheless, as Cameraperson makes clear, Johnson’s images are inextricable from her embodied experience of the world. Footage of Johnson’s own children and mother ricochet against other scenes depicting children and motherhood. In one scene, Johnson anxiously trails an overworked midwife in Nigeria struggling to bring an oxygen-deprived newborn back from the brink of death. In another scene, Johnson murmurs nervously as she watches a toddler play unattended with an axe, unsure whether or not she should intervene or stay out of the frame. Our awareness of Johnson’s gender heightens how we understand the audacity of her work, especially in violent, male-centric environments like the Golden Gloves Tournament as her camera tightly pursues a fighter punching everything in sight after losing a match. It helps us understand her singular ability to build trust with female victims of sexual assault and sensitively portray the oppression of women. As a rare portrait of a woman’s life behind the camera in a male-dominated genre, Cameraperson compels us to think about the perspectives we don’t see — both those which seem imperceptible, and those which haven’t yet had the chance.

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Lauren Du Graf is a Visiting Researcher at Johns Hopkins University. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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