Kirsten Johnson has worked as a cinematographer and camera operator for documentary films for more than two decades. She’s lensed for the likes of Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirby Dick, and their projects have taken her all over the world, including many war-torn regions. A film about two Afghan girls she had met during her travels evolved into The Blind Eye (2013), a collage of violent images she’d captured during her career. With the help of fellow documentary cinematographer Nels Bangerter, she shaped this “Trauma Cut” into a quieter, more meditative reflection on her art. The result was Cameraperson, a filmmaker’s memoir constructed from footage Johnson had shot for various docs. Since its premiere at the 2016 Sundance film Festival, the film has won tremendous acclaim, including a quick induction in the Criterion Collection. In conjunction with the film’s upcoming television premiere on POV, Daniel Schindel talked to Johnson over the phone about how her experiences gradually shaped Cameraperson into its final form.
Daniel Schindel: Your statement on the film lists a series of challenges a documentary photographer faces in the moment of filming. Among these troubles are when you follow stories a director does not need and when you’re not following the ones they want. How independent is a cinematographer during the production of a documentary?
Kirsten Johnson: As with all of this, it is completely dependent on the director. There are situations in which the director is right there with you all the time, and there are situations in which you are completely alone or with the sound person in a space. This can be for reasons that have to do with time constraints, or because the director needs to be doing something else simultaneously. There are these triangulations that happen — the more people are in a space, the more complicated it gets for the people being filmed.
But I’ve certainly had many experiences in which I end up following someone and there’s no way the director can even keep up. They end up doing something else while you’re down the road with someone and something’s happened to them, and you’re the only one there and are deciding whether you continue to film or not. Hopefully, you’re thinking what the director is hoping for, and know what story you’re following together. But sometimes, without even realizing it, you’ve got a completely different interpretation of what they wanted.
DS: Who’s a director you’ve worked with who is with you all the time? Who’s a director who’s given you more freedom? And what’s an example of a time when you followed something which the director didn’t intend, where your visions were different?
KJ: Barbara Kopple is definitely someone who gets you access to a place and then you have a huge amount of freedom within that situation. I was about to say that Laura Poitras is someone who’s with you all the time, but in fact she asked me to go to Guantanamo Bay while she was in Yemen. So she’s the kind of director who will be with you if she can, but based on your relationship and trust, she’ll also let you be on your own without them.
With the Bosnian family featured in Cameraperson, it was very clear to the director that they weren’t people we were going to follow, but I didn’t know that and kept filming them picking blueberries high up on a mountain. I think the director had determined right away that it wasn’t going to be in the movie, but I just got led off to this world and fell in love with the family and with filming them. I believe they didn’t even translate any of the original footage. So clear was the director’s knowledge that this didn’t fit into the context of the film, but we’d driven halfway up this mountain and were going to be there til sunset anyway, so she let me go.
DS: Was there any footage you wanted but weren’t able to find, or couldn’t get permission to use?
KJ: There was so much I wasn’t able to find. In the case of a film like Darfur Now, Warner Independent had ceased to exist, so that footage was very complicated and limited. There are also agreements that are struck between directors and the people who are filmed, that “This is off-limits” or “This can only be used in this context.” Incredibly, Michael Moore said I could use literally anything I had ever shot for him without his oversight, which was impressive to me in its generosity.
DS: What’s something you remembered recording which you wanted to use but couldn’t?
KJ: We had filmed the president of Sudan, who is now accused of war crimes, at the wedding of someone connected to his inner circle. There was this look in his eye when he saw that I was filming him, this terrible look that really felt like the look of someone who is capable of ordering people to be killed. It was like “Get this woman to stop filming me immediately.” Some bodyguards rushed in and pulled me away. I really wanted to see that look in his eyes, and see whether or not it came across to the audience. But that was just footage we couldn’t get.
There was a lot which I thought was deeply memorable. Probably one of the most powerful examples for me was we had filmed in Rwanda at a church where thousands of people had been massacred. When arrived, there was a man there who had survived the massacre and was basically the custodian of the small memorial that had been created there. He was clearly desperate for the memory of what had happened to be recorded, and he took me down to a kind of crypt. The ground was muddy, there were caskets with bodies falling out of them, and everything was rotting. He wanted me to film it because he wanted people to not forget what had happened there, but as you can imagine, it was completely horrific. I couldn’t remember whether I had filmed it or pretended to film it on his behalf, to communicate “Yes, I am seeing this, I am witnessing this thing.” I went back to that footage, and it turned out I had immediately turned the camera off because it was so horrific I didn’t want anyone else to see it. Now I regret that in some ways, and in other ways I don’t, and that’s the conundrum of all this.
DS: What made you shift from the unifying focus on violence of the “Trauma Cut” to the final cut, which is more quotidian details of life and work?
KJ: I think the “Trauma Cut” really was unbearable. It was too much to take, it was a visual assault. And so we thought a lot about how to present some of the intensity of what is going on in the world and what one experiences as a camperaperson while not making everyone want to turn it off immediately. Nels Bangerter had a lot of perspective for me: he was finding the ways in which I really enjoy myself in the world — how I can be in a space where people are living with a lot of suffering, but still we’re joking together, I’m enjoying the food that they’re serving, talking to their kids. Nels was able to identify for me the mechanism with which I cope. And many of those mechanisms I have learned from people who have experienced brutality themselves. People find the esoteric humor in their situations; it encourages one to find coping mechanisms that aren’t just total despair.
DS: How difficult was it to edit the structure of the film to find the proper flow?
KJ: We had a guiding principle that the audience would be sophisticated and capable of understanding all the dimensions of this. So with the early scene in which I’m shooting landscape and react to sudden lightning, you immediately have this knowledge that I’m there. And the scene where I reach out my hand and pluck the grass in front of the camera tells you that not only am I there, but I’m also an active participant in the creation of these images. Once I’ve established that, you can move onto other things.
Another organizing principle was to let a piece of footage do as many things as possible. We tried to create rules around the way we presented scenes. For example, the abortion clinic scene was a B-roll shot in Trapped, so we had to add back in the sound. We only wanted to do that once in the film. We wanted to include one scene exactly as it was in the original film, from Derrida. We were constantly making rules like that, and that was what helped us to not only figure out what order we put things in, but what footage we used.
DS: You use title cards to introduce subjects and locations. How much did you experiment with how to create context for the footage?
KJ: Context is the key word; we were trying to figure out how much was needed. Eventually, it became clear that we had to own that this was its own movie. Whenever we provided too much context, your brain would leave and head off toward the other film. When I was shooting, I didn’t yet know the title of the film I was working on, or when it would come out or what it would be about. So we put the viewer in my position when filming, which is that I knew where I was—and that was about it.
I really believe that these images are relationships. They are relationships in the making, but they continue to be relationships moving forward in the future. Each one is an interaction between the people filmed, the people who recorded the material, and the people who watch it. Me watching Abdul Henderson [in Fahrenheit 9/11] when the Iraq War is going on is one thing. Watching Abdul Henderson will mean another thing to the person who sees that footage.
DS: How do you think you’ve changed as a photographer over the course of your career?
KJ: That’s what was fascinating to me about Camperaperson, was realizing how revealed I am in the footage. I can see myself at different ages, where I was obsessed or drawn to different things or I understood things differently. All of my life, I’ve thought a lot about the way race is constructed and how racism functions, but it took me until much later in life to think about gender inequity, and I can see that shift happening in how I look at people. There are things like that which are very private to me, where I know what I understood at a time when I filmed it, and I can see myself changing. I didn’t realize that that would be in the footage.
DS: Going forward, do you have any more ideas for a film you’d like to direct, or would you prefer to continue as a cinematographer?
KJ: I am working on a new project as a director and as a camperaperson with my father, and I also have a larger, multi-year camera-people project that I’m working on. I am very actively pursuing the ideas that Camperaperson opened up for me.