Art Works Blog

Art Talk with filmmaker Kirsten Johnson

"I feel like the role of the camera person is a role in which extraordinary empathy is possible—but then, what's happening with that empathy? Where does it go?" -- Kirsten Johnson

Acclaimed cinematographer, director, and camera person Kirsten Johnson has spent more than 25 years shooting documentary films across the world. Whether chronicling the journey of Liberian women working to end a civil war (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 2008), documenting the aerial feats of choreographer Elizabeth Streb (Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity, 2014), or exploring the life of French philosopher Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), her work continually captures compelling stories and unique voices.

For Johnson, “the role of the camera person is a role in which extraordinary empathy is possible.” In her new film Cameraperson, Johnson turns to her own experience behind the camera, assembling a collage of film footage shot throughout her career to examine the joys, challenges, and ambiguities of filming the lives of others. Supported by the NEA through a grant to Women Make Movies, Cameraperson recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers program, and screens this spring at the True/False Film Festival and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. 

In an interview with Johnson, we talk to her about her early forays into cinematography and filmmaking in Dakar and Paris, what it was like to revisit her previous work in Cameraperson, and get her take on the questions raised for all of us as “camera persons” today.

NEA: To start, can you tell us how you got involved in this field? What was your path to becoming a cinematographer and a filmmaker?

KIRSTEN JOHNSON: As an undergraduate I was not thinking about film, but I was very interested in questions of racial justice And I was very interested in the visual arts. After college I decided I wanted to go to Dakar, Senegal, because I had seen the films of Ousmane Sembene and Djibril Diop Mambéty and some of the great West African filmmakers. I literally went and knocked on Sembene's door. He said, "What are you doing here? How did you get here? Who are you?" And then he said, "Well, if you stick around long enough, you can be an intern on the set of Niiwam,” a film that he had written and his assistant, Clarence Delgado, was going to direct. So I literally asked, "Well, how long is long?" And he said, "Well—we'll probably be shooting in a year, year and a half." I decided that I was going to stick around for that.

I lived in Senegal for two years and did work as an intern on that film. In the course of that I went to Fespaco [the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso] with all of these West African filmmakers, and I realized I really wanted to be a filmmaker myself. One of my friends was a Senegalese photographer who said, "You should go to film school in France because it’s free." So I went to Paris and looked into applying to La Fémis, the French National Film School. I discovered that they gave scholarships to people from the global south and it was free to people from the developing world, but it wasn't free for Americans, and no American had ever gone there before. I had this hilarious experience of going and asking if I could apply in competition with the French students. One of the admissions people said, "I don't know if you understand, Kirsten; this is the crème-de-la-crème of France applying to this school." And I said, "Well, I'd like to try!"

Some of the great advice I got was to apply in a technical department, and not the directing department. I wanted to be a director, so of the editing, sound, production [departments], I chose the image department, the cinematography department. I had only done photography to that date, and through a serious of miracles I got in.

NEA: Tell us a bit about your creative process as a cinematographer.

JOHNSON: It is really always a series of conversations with the director that I am working with. I love the opportunity to work with someone on a subject that is theirs, but that interests me on multiple levels. I think of films as being full of themes. I always ask directors to tell me the themes they believe are at the heart of the film, and the story they believe they are following. But I also believe—and I certainly share this with directors—that every film we make is for reasons that are mysterious to us until the film is finished. And so I think of it really psychologically; what are the unknown, unconscious impulses that are leading us to this particular story? I try to tap into those questions as much as I can. That is a lot of what drives me, just trying to figure out why it is that we are trying to make this particular story. There are clues for that all over the place, and then there are reveals while you are shooting, and so there's a daily discussion with the director at the end of every shooting day after we have had the initial set of discussions about making the film.

I also love to talk about what are the influences or the visual ideas that are inspiring the director. I want to go to movies with them, I want look at the photography they love, I want to be around the time of daylight that they love the most. Is it a nighttime story; is it happening at dawn; is it happening in the middle of the blazing sun of midday? All of those are things I am thinking about in terms of their story meaning or their emotional meaning so that the light reflects the story in some kind of way. I'll also think really strongly about making compositional choices that relate to the themes we have talked about.

For example, when I worked with Laura Poitras on The Oath, I was filming in Guantanamo and there were lots of restrictions around things I was not allowed to film. I started to create my frames in relation to what I was allowed to film. I would go right up to the edges of what I wasn't allowed to film, and then that would generate the composition. So I had these very strange, off-symmetry, constructions that I believe on some aesthetic level spoke to the limitations and impositions of the …the security restrictions. There was something dissonant in those images that you get emotionally…. Documentary filmmaking is all about constraints, and all about what you can't get and what you miss and the frustration…I find [it] very generative. 

NEA: To go back to the themes of these films, several of the documentaries you've worked on tackle very difficult subject matter, whether it is civil war, or poverty and hunger, or sexual assault. What kinds of questions are raised for you as the camera person in the middle of that work, when you are witness to someone opening up about a traumatic experience in front of you, or you are witness to an event while filming?

JOHNSON: That's precisely what this film Cameraperson is about. It’s the accumulation of my experience witnessing so many different stories of different kinds of injustice, and connecting with so many people who reveal so much to us and shared so much traumatic material with us. I believe that when you show up with a camera, you show up with a promise. That there are spoken promises and unspoken promises about possibilities of change, or possibilities of just acknowledgement— that a person be seen, that they be recognized for something they have experienced that no one has recognized before…. None of us can predict where things are going or how change will happen, and it’s not a one-to-one relationship. So even if you come with the intention of creating exposure or hoping for change, those things don’t necessarily happen, or they are unintended consequences that come of these levels of exposure. This incredibly changed landscape in which we operate, where the act of being filmed and then one's filmed image [is] in the world, functions completely differently than it used to. 

I have always felt deep ethical struggle in this work, and I have always felt profound hope about what this work could do, and the knowledge of what it does do in the connections I make with people when I film with them. But I also know that I leave. That I fly into a situation and then fly away from it. That I share great intimacies with people that end abruptly, and that then are represented in the ways they expected, or in completely different ways, by the films themselves. So there's been an accumulation for me over these years of deep ambivalence about the work, and a desire to expose how complex it is, and to acknowledge how much human emotion is going on during the making of one of these films that isn't just [in] the story that you see on screen. So Cameraperson is a series of situations in which you are looking at what I’m filming, but you're allowed to think about my presence there in a way that you can't in the actual films in which they were shot for.

I expose my own questions about my behavior, my ambivalences about leaving, and my feelings of impotency. To be in the world and situations of such poverty and need and to not be able to do anything other than film is a very powerful and conflicted position to be in, especially when you are zoomed in and seeing the emotion on someone's face as you do it. I feel like the role of the camera person is a role in which extraordinary empathy is possible—but then, what's happening with that empathy? Where does it go? The film is also a lot about the past, present, future. There's evidence of the present moment in the footage, but then, how do you deal with that over time? What will your actions mean to a person later? What they will mean to you later? That’s what the film is involved in questioning.

NEA: Tell us a bit about the genesis of the film Cameraperson. Was there something specific that made you want to make this film now?

JOHNSON: It does come from very specific place. I had filmed with a young woman in Afghanistan starting in 2009, and I had edited that material together by 2012. When I showed the film to her, she said, "I'm sorry, I’m afraid to show my face in your movie." In that short period of time from 2009 to 2012, she went from being completely complicit and wanting to be filmed to being terrified to be seen. At first, it was a complete shock to me, and I did a lot of self-interrogation: "What did I miss? How did I not see this coming?” And then I started to look at context. Obviously the political context in Afghanistan had shifted radically in that period of time. More importantly, what I referred to earlier is this major shift in the possibility of people almost anywhere in the world seeing footage of themselves that you film. It used to be before the internet, before YouTube, before Facebook, that you could film things of people and promise them that anyone who was antagonistic to them in their vicinity wouldn't see it. So I can film you in a small town in Afghanistan, and none of your neighbors who would judge you for being in this footage would ever see it. But that stopped being true.

Many of us [documentarians] were operating without realizing what is going to be the fallout of shooting this footage when the people in this place see it. And I think that there are citizen journalism organizations or [human rights] organizations like Witness who have been thinking about these things for a long time, and yet the landscape has been shifting in such radical ways that everybody has been a little out of sync with it. So for me, the withdrawal of this young woman's permission raised all these questions about what had changed over the course of time from when I started filming, questions about one’s image and where it goes in the world and who has rights over it. All of those questions started to come up for me. It brought a second wave of these questions about loss and trauma and ambivalence around how much change is possible when we do this kind of work. It came in waves, but that was certainly the genesis of it.

NEA: That brings us to a question about what it was like to revisit 25 years of your life and work in making the film, and the moments of discovery or of loss in that process. Were there specific surprises that emerged for you?

JOHNSON: The most profound one came at the moment of assembling [the film footage]. I didn't take on the whole 25 years in this comprehensive way in the beginning; I went for a handful of situations that had really haunted me and that had really stayed with me and I had really strong questions about. I initially picked the heaviest material without realizing it, and we strung that material together. I had recorded voiceover and told stories and worked with this material for several months in the edit room, and I had seen it again after not seeing it for years. And yet, when we put the whole thing together and watched this two-and-a-half-hour cut--we now affectionately call it the trauma cut--I was just completely flabbergasted. It was so extraordinarily painful and not watchable. I could not believe that I put it together without realizing how unwatchable it would be, how brutalizing it was. That was the big shock to me. Just to say, wow, I have compartmentalized.

My wonderful producer Marilyn Ness said, "Now just step way back. Just step back and take a break.” And in the process of doing that my editor got pregnant, so we needed to find a new editor, and I spent a lot of time looking for the next person to work with. I would say that the next great revelation came with the first cut that [editor] Nels Bangerter did, in which I found myself crying in a whole different way…. I was able to see how much joy I experience when I shoot, how much humor, how much tenderness, and…the joy that things can generate for you, the basket full of blueberries or whatever it is that suddenly makes you love being alive. And that second cut he made was almost a full reversal from the first trauma cut. Where I was like, “Oh wow…I love my work and I love the world and the world is so kind to me,” as opposed to the first one, which was completely overwhelming and all about loss.

It's also extremely interesting in terms of memory because one of the themes in the film is my own mother's Alzheimer’s. I was thinking a lot about memory because of that. How do we compartmentalize? Those of us who see injustice or huge difficulty at scale, where we see a lot of it, how do we manage that? I think there are a lot of people—nurses, police, human rights workers—more people than one thinks about who encounter things at scale like this. I include one of the production drivers and one of the translators in the film, [who] are talking about sort of repeated exposure to really strong subject matter.

I became fascinated [with this question] I realized that I would have, for example, a very traumatic scene that happens in a hospital in Nigeria. In my mind I had this blurry face of this midwife as the thing that I remembered from that time that I had filmed seven years ago. What was amazing was to look back on the footage and realize I recognized everybody, every face of every person in that maternity ward. It was that midwife who had had to bear the difficulty of the situation for hours and hours. Hers was the blurry face that I blocked all of the difficulty with, and in some ways it was extremely difficult in looking at the footage to look at her face, because she was carrying the burden of everything. It was her face that I remember but I couldn't bear to hold on to, how much difficulty was in her face. So those kinds of revelations—to completely recognize the footage again, and to have known that it had stayed in my mind in this transformed state that helped me cope with it—that was all super fascinating. I am loving showing the film because the comments that people have are making me think about it in all kinds of new ways. It is a very alive film for me. 

NEA: The film has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has gotten a really positive response. You referred to it as an “alive film”; tell us more about what it has been like for you now that it is out there in the world.

JOHNSON: I have young children, four-year-old twins, and I wanted to create some kind of record for them of what my life was before they knew me. So it was this gesture in many ways toward really strong needs within myself. I knew I was involved in these kinds of conversations with my colleagues, so I knew that it was relevant to our world of filmmakers and human rights activists. Then I started to realize as I was making it how relevant it is to everyone, because we all have cameras now. We all have phones in our pockets. I would be at the playground, and watch mothers deciding whether or not to film their children while they were playing. I was in a hospital, and saw someone filming a family member who was ill. How do we stay in the present? Does a camera help us go deeper into the present? Does it remove us from the present? Does it help us manage our emotions? What are we doing? Does it help our memory? [I realized] that almost everybody on the planet is now starting to ask those kinds of questions. I was really thinking of it in terms of me and my own deep story and trying to understand my own life, but I was also making this leap to “everybody is a camera person.”

I did not expect the film to resonate in the way that it has, and I am so utterly moved and so thrilled that it’s speaking to people. It’s not a film about me. It is about the role of the camera person, and it is about acknowledging human presence. When a camera is present, a human is present. I am this specific human who has been all these places and shot this particular footage, and it is a unique story and Cameraperson is my story. And yet I constructed it in a way purposefully to have it be open and be inclusive and allow space for the viewer, to allow people to ask where their role with the camera is in their life. I see that is landing with people. I get the sense that's part of why people are responding to it, because it has that open space in it.

NEA: You have had a very long career in the field—what motivates you to continue your work? What advice you would have for those who are interested in cinematography or filmmaking?

JOHNSON: I do think that it is one of the most extraordinary life paths possible, because it is so mind-expanding and so rich in its challenges and so connective. You are asked to connect over and over with people in all kinds of different situations. And honestly, sometimes that is really challenging, and sometimes it is surprisingly delightful and easy. The flow of all of that makes it this incredible choice of a life. I certainly feel like humility is a critical piece of it, a kindness and a humility around the complexity of the work and the aesthetic joys that are possible in it. And the responsibility of it, all of those things.

You can't do the work without constantly missing or failing or not having it in focus, or you miss that moment, and it’s all because you’re trying to anticipate what will happen, but we cannot anticipate what will happen in this world. That constant messiness of attempting to find a way to frame what is life… can be an experience of constant anxiety, or a feeling of failure or missing or losing. But it also can be this glorious "I can't believe I am here, that this is happening, that I am getting this light, in this moment, with this person’s beautiful face” if you can live with the messy complexity of it, and experience the pleasure that it gives, and all the while just try to not get out of whack with your relationship to the power of it. Because the camera is power, and how you wield that power can be really cruel or irresponsible or unkind, and it can also be something that gives honor to people, or exposes injustice, or exposes the wonder of the world. Sometimes it does all of those things in the same day. And you are the same person, trying to do wonderful things, and in trying to do wonderful things sometimes you end up doing awful things. I have experienced that, and that is what I wanted to show in Cameraperson.

NEA: You brought up times when you miss a moment while shooting a film. How you define failure and success in your practice? What does it look like for you when you are in the field—what is failure, what is success?

JOHNSON: I certainly experience excruciating feelings of failure almost daily in shooting. That is part of what shooting is. But I also like the thrill of realizing we found the story, and this one moment captures a part of it in an unexpected way. It is completely exhilarating.  Just a belief that you are pursuing the storyline and that you are gathering pieces of it. That’s one thing that is particular to documentary, that you have this ratio of the footage you gather, and you know that sometimes you gather material and you don’t realize how important it will be later, when the story goes in a direction you did not anticipate. There is an element of faith that happens when one is filming-- "Well, I’m here, in this moment and I have filmed this, I don't know that it will be meaningful to the story, but I believe it may be." Over time, working on many films, I've been dramatically surprised by what has ended up mattering to a film. That's that thing between present and future, where I often feel like "I am as present as I can be in the moment of shooting this, and I trust that sometime in the future it will be meaningful in a way I cannot understand.” I rarely beat myself up too much. I have been surprised over and over again about something where I thought I had blown it, or thought I had not gotten the thing that was needed, when in fact I got it, it was there. The evidence is there. So that has been useful over time to discover. The longer you do the work, the more you realize that the act of doing it is significant.

NEA: Are there specific filmmakers who have inspired and influenced your own practice over the years?

JOHNSON: It feels like a river of people who influence me. I read a lot of fiction and I watch a lot of narrative fiction and I am interested in dance; I would say I am literally interested in all art forms and I feel like they nourish me all the time. I love being influenced by the people I work with. I have definitely been influenced by my work with Laura Poitras. There is such a thoughtfulness to her choices that I feel like I have been deeply empowered in new ways because of working with her. That collaboration has been very formative to me. 

NEA: It’s interesting to hear you reference narrative fiction, dance, and these other art forms. One question that is often asked at the end of these interviews is to finish the following sentence: The arts matter because....

JOHNSON: The arts matter because they help us reimagine our situation, our place in the world. They help us create ourselves. I have become who I have become as a person because of the artwork of other people. And I am deeply grateful. In some ways [it] creates... the "why" I work so hard, the "why" I strive and have creative ambition, because of the courage and vision of other artists and how much it has meant to me. I don't know who my work will be meaningful for, but I know other people's work has been meaningful to me. Certainly in the case of making this film, I knew making this work was deeply critical to me as a person. I can't even tell you just how thrilling it is to me that people are finding Cameraperson meaningful. It just means the world to me. But it is in many ways, it shows this process of me being changed by other people's work. It's like I am in the river with everyone.


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