Kirsten Johnson Is Tired Of Being Called A “Cameraman”

Photo: Kathy Leichter.
To train a camera on the world is to occupy a very strange position of power. The person holding that camera quite literally frames the story being told about the people or events captured on film — yet their presence is invisible and silent on-screen. It's a paradox that's long fascinated Kirsten Johnson, the lauded documentary cinematographer, and director of a new film unlike any you've ever seen, Cameraperson (in theaters September 9).
Cameraperson seeks to unravel the complicated relationship between the person behind the camera and the subject in front by essentially flipping the script. (If there were one, that is.) Johnson has worked behind the camera on dozens of extraordinary documentaries over the course of her 25-year career — Michael Moore’s explosive Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004); The Invisible War (2012), a damning close-up look at sexual assault in the military; and the Oscar-winning documentary on Edward Snowden and the NSA leak, Citizenfour (2014). While each of those films tells a specific, studied story about its subject, there has always been one woman on the other side of the camera — and Cameraperson is her story.
The memoir-meets-documentary is a two-hour patchwork of footage left on the cutting-room floor — a colorful, emotive collage of unused interview clips, offbeat encounters, outtakes, home videos, and uncanny moments. Johnson describes making the film as an excavation of her entwined personal and professional lives. "It really made me think about what has been the impact of the accumulation of all of these really painful stories inside of me, and what does it mean to sort of pull apart all of these compartments that you’ve kept things in," Johnson says. "That’s what I find really fascinating about camerawork, and what I want to reveal in the film: It’s just not that simple... What I’m really interested in is revealing the complexity of that and not hiding from anyone how complicated it is." In Cameraperson, Johnson hides nothing.
Let’s talk about the title. Why Cameraperson?
“For me, it’s the relationship: camera and people together. Obviously, on another level, it directly addresses the fact that I am a woman, and pretty much every day that I shoot someone calls me a cameraman.” Addressing you to your face?
“Yeah! It’s just in the language. And I just shot at the DNC, and the press passes both for the DNC and RNC say, ‘Kirsten Johnson, Cameraman,’ and everyone’s press passes said cameraman.” Do you ever feel like that’s a challenge? Or do you feel like you get people to open up to you in different ways than a man might be able to?
“Yes and yes. I think none of us [are] completely aware of how who we are impacts the people who we’re interacting with. And when one travels around the world, you are foreign — you are something unlike anything someone has seen in a particular place. So for me to be in Afghanistan with a camera, it’s provocative to people, it’s interesting to people, it’s empowering to people. It makes people ask questions, and in some ways, it frees up some interaction that a particular society doesn’t allow. So it can be transgressive to be from the outsider or be other, it sort of gives a way in."

To be an outsider in general in that place, or specifically a woman?
“I think in that particular country, specifically a woman, yes. I think in certain countries there’s such codified ways in which men and women can interact. There’s a lot of separation between men and women that when you enter into those societies, you really shake things up. "I filmed at this separatist Christian community in Alaska, and all the girls and women had to wear skirts and could only do certain activities. I literally was carrying my camera, and then in my off time, I was carving a wooden bowl out with a chainsaw because I wanted the little girls to see this. I was doing everything I could to show [the young girls] that a different way of being could happen.

One is underestimated as a young woman, which often gives you sorts of ins that you don’t expect.

Kirsten Johnson
Photo: Lynsey Addario/Courtesy of Janus Films.
"What’s interesting is to now be a 50-year-old woman and realize the great advantages of the attractiveness of youth are something that we as young women totally take for granted. We enjoy it and it’s wonderful, people pay attention to us, people are happy to see us. But people underestimate us, right? I think we don’t expect young women to be smart, necessarily, or to be really informed or to be able to have the capacity to be investigative. So one is underestimated as a young woman, which often gives you sorts of ins that you don’t expect. "It’s funny, I teach, and across the board young women ask me, ‘Is it possible to be a mother and do this work?’ So now what I do when I teach, I ask every young man in my class, ‘How are you going to be a parent and do this work?’ Because there’s clearly some need in young women to try to plan that and think about it and find a way to make it happen. [Becoming a parent] happens to most men, but they don’t worry about it. They worry about their work for 20 years, and then suddenly they have a career and they have a family.” And it’s no problem!
“And it’s no problem.”
Photo: Lynsey Addario/Courtesy of Janus Films.
To pivot a little bit, do you think social media is helping people who are documenting their lives in a way? It’s not the same as documentary filmmaking, obviously, but do you see any connections there?
“I’m seeing big connections. I’m super interested in this, and thank you for asking. I think yes: Everyone is a cameraperson now, right? They are a photographer, they are a cameraperson. And I really want the conversation that I’ve been having in my own head and with documentary colleagues for the last 25 years to enter into the wide public discourse: Why do we film? What does it mean to film other people? What does it mean for our images to follow us, track us, stay with us forever? To have our whole lives documented.
"The Amy Winehouse movie [2015’s Amy] came out and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, this is one of the first movies where there was footage of everything.’ There was footage of every moment of her life. She’s the generation at which that [became] possible. Yet, there was no footage of her creative process — there was only footage of her celebrations, her self-destruction, her relationships, the paparazzi. It was an external documentation of her." Okay, yeah I do see that.
"We’re all doing that external documenting, but there are some things that are rarely documented. And why? How can we think about that differently? Then I also think the really critical part of this, that didn’t exist for me when I first started doing documentary film, is that we used to be able to promise people that we could control where their images would go. That’s no longer possible, right? Since we don’t know the future, we don’t know what having an image of us in a particular situation is going to mean or do in the future. So [that's a] relationship I think we all need to think and talk about more."
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