The cinematographer and director on her memoir, Cameraperson.
Over a twenty-five-year career, Kirsten Johnson has captured difficult, hidden images and brought them into the world. Sensitivity and courage inform her instincts and aesthetic, and her frames are deeply intimate, politically charged, and cinematic. She is best known for her work with Laura Poitras on The Oath (2010), Citizenfour (2014), and Risk (2016); with Michael Moore on Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004); and with Ted Braun on Darfur Now (2007).
Cameraperson presents outtakes from over twenty documentaries—moments that have stayed with Johnson: a Christian family preparing dinner in postwar Bosnia, a boxer's humiliation after losing a match in Brooklyn, men praying at a mosque in Afghanistan, and a newborn struggling for life in a Nigerian hospital. The film confronts the nature of seeing, being present, and dealing with memory and trauma. There's also personal footage of her mother's decline with Alzheimer's, her father, and young twins, drawing together seemingly disparate scenes with profound humanity. Johnson demonstrates that truth and objectivity are constantly shifting.
After majoring in fine arts and literature at Brown, Johnson spent time in Senegal working with groundbreaking filmmakers Djibril Diop Mambéty and Ousmane Sembène, after which she moved to Paris to study cinematography at La Fémis. I met her at the Criterion Collection offices in New York.
Alex Zafiris I'm interested in how present you seem to be, always.
Kirsten Johnson Presence is an essential word for me. [The sun dips behind a cloud and the room shifts dramatically from light to dark.] Wow––look at that change in light, that was intense! [The sun returns.] You're torn between where to be, and how to be, and it's playing out on this second-by-second basis, like the sun going under a cloud just now. I have to care about those things. Do I change the f-stop, or do I not, to keep being with you in this moment? That's what the camera asks for.
AZ Do you do anything in preparation for that?
KJ One of the things is simply acknowledging your membrane. You have to be a body in space to be able to do the work. You're doing it over long durations of time, in unexpected situations, but it's also the pleasure. I can see you. I can see your hands. I learn things about you while I'm talking to you, which is different than reading text or watching a screen, because there are always things out of the frame. If I was filming, I would feel completely comfortable to come over here [she gets up, circles the table, and sits closer]. This distance is more interesting to me. I can connect with you better—learn more, visually, about you. A camera gives me permission to do that.
AZ To me, that is your personal style: this attention to truth—allowing the cloud to pass, for example. It's about your artist's eye.
KJ One of the revelations in making this film is that we each have an eye. If you're practicing a craft––writing, drawing, painting, filming, photographing––you start to gather evidence of the way you see and what you care about. There's this illustration where the unconscious mind is a tiger, and the conscious mind is a little monkey sitting on the back of the tiger's butt with a steering wheel, but it's not connected to anything. When I'm filming, I'm the monkey with a steering wheel. I know what I'm doing. But there's a tiger inside of me, heading in some other direction. I'm doing and filming things that have to do with my interior reality, that reveal me, and inside that there is no constant me.
I had this wonderful sound person, Wellington Bowler. At a certain point when we were filming in Darfur, he's like, "You need to call your Mom." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "You're not able to hold your shots long enough anymore." This is what sound people do. They're watching you watch. I had Gini [Reticker, executive producer] say to me, "Enough filming babies." She knew I wanted a baby, but I was filming too many shots of babies to be able to cut together a scene. So––yes, it's my eye, but it's my eye and my me. What do I care about? What am I obsessed by that I can't even speak to my own self?
AZ Do directors give you free reign?
KJ In documentary, they have to. Nobody knows which direction anything is going, and you can't communicate about it as it's happening. You just have to go. We know enough about what we're tying to do. That gets filtered down to tiny interactions. A director may be pulling, "We've got this," and I have to keep going. I might not even say anything. I just stand there for thirty more seconds and get it.
AZ And that's an intuition about the story.
KJ That's right. Sometimes those intuitions are in sync with the director, and sometimes they're not. Sometimes it takes months for those intuitions to play out, and we realize that we were both following really good instincts, and they come together and create an even richer story. In documentaries worth making, you don't know what the story is. You are discovering it, and it is much more complex than you can even begin to imagine. For example: [dealing with] a subject, a person, who is self-sabotaging. You may not know that until two years into filming them. But once that theme has revealed itself, and the story has revealed itself, you can go back into footage and see—"Ah! They did that in that moment." That meant nothing to you when you were filming it. But you captured it, because it was there.
AZ Your gaze is so empathetic. People seem to want to tell you the truth. What do you do, if you sense that they are lying?
KJ You're always asking: "Why is this person letting me film them?" There are multiple responses to that. Filming a convicted criminal on death row talking about themselves is a power relationship, between you, the prison, and the person. When we did Deadline, we were given an hour. Imagine that you are someone on death row: No one ever visits you, and a person with a camera is coming, and you can speak for an hour, about who you are. You have a mission. And the person filming has a mission. We don't really know what each other's mission is. In this encounter, things happen. I'm always most interested in human vulnerability: Where is the moment of revelation? What is it you want to know from me? We're complicit. That's where I feel, sometimes, this crazy sense of responsibility. Because I know I've generated this trust, and then––what do I do with it? Or: What does the film do with it? I always say that the camera comes with a promise, yet we don't know what the person being filmed thinks the promise is—even if you're explicit about it. In generating intimacy and trust, can you give back what was extended? Cameraperson is looking at that question.
AZ Normally, you abandon control of your footage when you give it to the director. Here, in this film, you had control.
KJ It's funny, because you imagine that control exists somewhere, and in fact, it's not out there! Making Cameraperson really was a discovery. It looks nothing like what I imagined it would. When we came to the decision of choosing not to use voiceover, that changed my relationship to control.
AZ You had a very good collaboration with your editor, Nels Bangerter.
KJ Fantastic, yes. What is interesting is that I began this whole journey with another editor named Amanda Laws. [It was] after this moment when a young Afghan woman—who I had filmed [for a different project] over a couple of years—said, "I can't be in this film, I don't feel safe." I had been complicit with this girl, and it really made me question myself. Amanda helped me move through all of the fears that this raised. We edited together, almost in isolation, just the two of us. We went down a lot of rabbit holes, where I did try and control things. I'd be like: "I want that beautiful shot, and that beautiful shot." Then you realize that they don't tell anything. That's you, trying to prove something; that's you, trying to hide.
We went through that entire process until we got to this moment of complete revelation. We call it "the trauma cut." We had assembled all this footage, not understanding how disturbing it was. Five genocides, babies struggling for life, rape—and for me, it was the tip of my iceberg. We were so deep in it that we thought it would be watchable. So it was a shock to watch and realize: "Whoa. Who am I? What is my relationship to trauma?" By that time, I had this fabulous producer, Marilyn Ness, who really has vision. She said: "Stop. Stop editing." Suddenly, once again, I had to totally call myself into question. Amanda and I had worked for months and created this horrific thing… You know, I once went to Haiti for a shoot, and the journalist there was so in the thick of things that when she picked us up at the airport, instead of saying hello, she put a photo of a dead body in front of my face and said, "We need to go make copies of this right away." She had been in riots and taking bullets. She had no idea that she had forgotten how to be a human being and say, "Hello, welcome to Port-au-Prince."
That's what this first edit felt like to me. I was shoving a photo of a dead body in someone's face. That's not who I think I am, but that's what I had done. So then, [it was up to me] to stop, search for a new editor, and really think about what I was going through, what I was trying to show. I had many conversations with many different editors. When I met Nels I realized that he could take all of that in. Instead of being afraid or shocked, he could see me, holding that photo up.
AZ Lucky! So then he went away and did a rough cut?
KJ Exactly. I had gathered what I thought was essential footage. Marilyn had this really smart idea of limiting how much I said about the footage to him—already enacting the constraint of no voiceover, to see if there could be a proof of concept.
AZ So he went away, and he came back.
KJ And then I cried. I was so happy. I had been so deep in all of the really difficult stuff of the world, the enduring injustices—that, and my feelings of failure: I'm not doing enough, I need to do more… He gave us this thing of beauty. He just simply made the connections: this land looks like this land. That person's hands look like that person's hands. If you chop wood, then you could put it in a stove and make a fire, and bake bread, and someone can eat delicious bread.
AZ So beautiful, and so simple.
KJ So simple. Such a gift. I could see myself. This is the way I am in the world. I love drinking berry juice, eating that bread.
AZ You love what you do.
KJ I love what I do! And I laugh when I'm doing it. I get pleasure out of it. I hug people, I get surprised, all those things. He just showed me the evidence of that.
Cameraperson opens in New York on September 9, and in Los Angeles on September 23.
Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.