Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson: A New Way of Seeing
As a cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson has been credited on several well-known documentaries, including Laura Poitras' Citizenfour (2014) and Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman's Derrida (2002). In Cameraperson (2016), she takes the film into her own hands as a director. Incorporating a fragmented experimental structure by rearranging pre-existing footage from her previous films, Johnson peels back the layers of surface images to question their meaning. She seeks to challenge her filmic authorship and the construction of her own art, through a breakdown of the capabilities of the camera, and the images that we consume.
In the selected gif, Johnson films herself holding a camera in a rear-view mirror as she returns to a location she visited on one of her documentaries. It is a self-conscious manifestation of the documentary's objective: in the opening intertitle Johnson invites her audience to consider her previously shot-footage as her "memoir." She leaves this with an elusive statement on how the "images leave me wondering still," suggesting that what we are to be shown only tells part of the story. Through this presentation of disjointed images, an experimental and poetic structure emerges which creates new artistic meaning from pre-existing footage.
Omitting voiceover, the documentary begins in montage. It feels like a rough cut: The sequence cuts abruptly from an out-of-focus close-up of wildflowers to a handheld shot of a house, but eventually refocuses on an old farmer rearing his sheep. While some of these shots linger, others are completely still. The quick editing makes the images too fleeting to tell a full story just yet. However, Johnson's film is never stagnant; it incorporates various segments across different continents: the delivery of a baby in Nigeria, a boxer getting ready to enter the ring in Brooklyn, New York, an astrophysicist in Texas. Explanation is withdrawn and sequential order is jumbled – there appears to be no connection between the images. In the seemingly arbitrary editing of this sequence, one comes to realise the power of Johnson's role as a filmmaker. Here she reframes pre-existing footage to encourage her audience to view these images from an entirely different perspective.
Johnson's reflexivity toward documentary cinema emphasises her work as a "creative treatment of actuality,"1 and foregrounds her authorship in the process. Throughout the film, Johnson rejects the non-interventionist approach of Direct Cinema, instead encouraging the audience to recognise her role as the filmmaker and creator of the image. By vocalising her internal thought processes while filming, she conveys what Timothy Corrigan describes as a "fragmentation that … troubles subjectivity and representation."2 In one notable scene, her words are heard from behind the camera, "so, I want to be like, boom, boom, boom, get eight shots of different minarets." We then see a montage of contrasting angled shots, edited according to her words.
So if Johnson does not conform to the "fly-on-the-wall" style of documentary (and its claims of objectivity), what style does she use and to what effect? In taking a reflexive approach to the film, Johnson highlights her ability to the control film's visual expression. She also recognises her own limitations in presenting a truthful reality, and forces the audience to question whether the camera can capture the 'real' world.3 Often, she intervenes in her own picture as a cameraperson. A memorable instance of this begins with an establishing shot of a highway, which initially seems like a perfect slice of objectivity reality. However, this illusion is punctured by Johnson's audible gasp of surprise behind the camera as a flash of lightning strikes through the clouds. She even sneezes from behind the camera, which causes the image to slightly shake. This interruption of an artificial reality by real life epitomises a critical self-consciousness that Johnson has in relation to the imperfections that lie outside the image – and how her role as a filmmaker often excludes the messiness associated with the capturing of moving images.
Filmmaking has its challenges, and one of the most prominent is finding where ethical limits lie, particularly in the filming of the vulnerable in third-world countries. In an interview at Sundance, Johnson called the camera an "instrument of power," which caused her to consider the complex moral questions around her portrayal of events to mainstream, Western audiences.4 She echoes this query in her own film in the Bronx, New York – capturing Charif Kiwan, a spokesperson of the Syrian film collective, denouncing the representation of "death" as incorporating a "voyeurism." He reiterates the very concerns Johnson has about the camera: how the media and its consumers absorb traumatic events as borderline spectacle. Johnson attempts to reconcile these problems by preserving dignity in her images without exploiting their subjects. Through unusual framing, she depicts locations of trauma in the present, but without context. There are no re-enactments or archival images here. Instead she shoots locations such as the Partizan Sports Hall – a place notorious for the imprisonment and mass rape of Muslim women during the Bosnian War – via a simple means: a tilted low-angle shot of the hall's ceiling lights, accompanied by the sound of children playing table tennis. Rather than guiding the audience through these images with her voice, Johnson evokes the trauma of the space with an intertitle. Her eschewal of the human voice and physical presence from this scene seems to suggest that the pain experienced in this space is impossible to convey through image or sound, so she leaves it up to the audience to imagine. To me this suggests Johnson's camera has its own ethical limitations in capturing certain events, and that some images must be withheld: that they are beyond seeing.
Cameraperson also explores the idea that the filmed image can become a way of viewing the self. Johnson subjects herself to an examination between the cross-sections of art and reality, in what Corrigan describes as a "process of understanding oneself, rethinking and making of self." 5 Johnson amalgamates the personal into her professional work: she films her mother in an everyday setting, following collagist moments as her memory slowly fades away, due to her Alzheimer's diagnosis. There is a heartbreaking scene where Johnson takes a camera up the sheep ranch with her mother, and asks her, "Is it okay if I film you?" The silence of her mother looking into the distance is exacerbated by the whipping fierceness of the wind. This combination of image and sound evokes a haunting deterioration of memory, and eventually life. This powerful moment is later contrasted with Johnson's filming of her own infant daughter, who plays with her camera lens, highlighting once again how the individual cannot be separated from the camera: "I want to keep that off [the camera lens] so I can see you guys," Johnson says to her daughter. When we finally catch our first sight of Johnson in one of the final shots of the film, the sheer impact of this documentary becomes crystal clear: the camera provides a tool to seeing ourselves, each other and the world through new eyes.