An Interview with Director and Cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson is a documentary film director, producer, and cinematographer whose credits include Citizenfour, Trapped, The Invisible War, Darfur Now, and Fahrenheit 9/11. In her new film, Cameraperson, she weaves together unused footage from her work as a cinematographer with her own home movies, creating a cohesive narrative about memory, trauma, representation, and the power of images and human connection.
Johnson (or KJ, as she’s known) elevates these remnants of previous films—including footage of survivors of the Bosnian genocide picking blueberries after returning to their home, a lawyer displaying the chains that white supremacists used to drag James Byrd to his death, and a midwife in a Nigerian maternity ward attempting to revive a dying newborn—and intersperses them with scenes of her mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, receding into an unknown space. KJ only appears on camera once, but her presence behind the camera is unmistakable.
KJ and I met a few days after a Cameraperson screening at a film festival, and we talked for a little over an hour about how she approaches her craft and the dilemmas she faces as a cinematographer—and as a human being.
I. I’M SEEING YOU NOW
THE BELIEVER: You’ve said the camera brings you closer to people. What does that mean?
KIRSTEN JOHNSON: For me, the camera allows. It allows me into someone’s home, into their intimacy. I filmed testimony of Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Foundation, and I remember going to this woman’s house in Brooklyn. She had this amazing photo of herself from when she was a little kid, where she was wearing a fez on her head with a fake chocolate cigarette in her mouth. You could see the most beautiful little life in the photo, and I got to be close up to film it, enter into her eyes, and be in her pre-Holocaust childhood. And then the same woman—we were filming and smelled something burning, and she was like, “Oh, I’m cooking my lunch.” So I go into her kitchen, and there’s this funny little metal bowl that’s cooking slowly on the stove, and I was like, “What is this bowl?” And she was embarrassed about it. It was her bowl from the camp. And it was what she makes all of her food for herself in. That tells you something about what the Holocaust was.
So there’s that level of intimacy, and then being allowed into a space like a prison or someone’s place of worship or a factory—places you don’t get to go otherwise, but you show up with a camera and you’re allowed in. Anytime you can get in closer physical proximity, you know more. If I get closer to you, I see the way you smile differently than I did when I was over here. And that’s what I do with the camera.
I could sit next to you, and I might actually touch you, and once you feel the quality of someone’s touch, you know different things about them. There have been times I transgressed inadvertently—like in Nigeria, I tried to touch this imam who was Boko Haram, and all of the security people came and stopped me.
BLVR: But then that tells you something too.
KJ: That’s information! I’m not allowed to touch this man, and how the world would end if he was touched by me. That’s profound. I respect and understand the differences in our experiences, and on another level, I’m interested in ways to break down the barriers. We’re humans, we’re bodies. How do I read the codes in a place, in a moment, so I can actually say, I’m seeing you now?
BLVR: Cameraperson highlighted connective threads between disparate people and places. Certain images recur—axes and firewood, or ripped jeans.
KJ: It’s so crazy that all these connections exist. I really looked at this film and never noticed the ripped pants, but it immediately has a connection in the story of my mom and in the story of memory. In 1957, my mother went to Haiti, and she didn’t know that Haitians were black. She got off the plane and was completely terrified. In my lifetime, she always talked about Haiti with fear. One of the things that she described was a man who had a rip in his pants, and she could see his butt. It was horrifying to her. She would always talk about the ripped pants.
I loved Haiti and went there a lot, and it always made me so angry that all she remembered were the ripped pants. But one time I was talking with her about Haiti when she was in her Alzheimer’s state, and she was like, “Oh, those beautiful girls, with their hair so beautifully brushed, and those big fat ribbons, and the way their shoes were so shiny on their way to church.” She had this memory—she had seen all these beautiful things, but she had only let herself see the poverty and the fear and the racism. This is why I love the scene in Cameraperson where a physicist explains the phenomenon of entanglement, a kind of magic alchemy. It does make one feel like it is our shared experience.
II. WHERE IS THE SELF?
BLVR: The film deals with the loss of your mother. Did you ever feel too immersed in the footage of her, where you had to step away?
KJ: I had very little footage of my mom. I had filmed her tentatively, because she didn’t want to be filmed. When I filmed her at her family ranch, I was sneaking it. The shots are very short—I’m constantly turning the camera off because I didn’t have her permission. But I also filmed her when she was so in her other space with Alzheimer’s that she stopped being self-conscious. What I find so interesting in that is—where is the self? The person who cared about her appearance and her representation didn’t exist anymore, and yet what did exist was her primal connection to my hair.
BLVR: She brushes your hair in the film.
KJ: My hair was always a place of contention. It never looked quite right to her when I was a teenager. She’d want to brush it, and I’d resist. In this moment of her Alzheimer’s, some part of her brain remembered that hair mattered—like, you can’t film if your hair is a mess, you can’t be the person that I want you to be if your hair is a mess. But we also had this moment in that period where she’d spend every day saying to me, “Your hair is so gorgeous and lustrous and shiny.” That’s what I find amazing about Alzheimer’s—that somehow the brain holds onto these touchstones and then works and reworks them. Someone told me that the structure of Cameraperson is not unlike Alzheimer’s—it’s out of chronology, it’s focused on the emotionally significant events. That never occurred to me, but I was fixated on how Alzheimer’s functions because it’s so painful and fascinating and oddly poetic.
BLVR: Did working on the film change the way you grieved for her?
KJ: Making this film was a contending with my relationship with my mother and who she wished me to be. The fact that there’s tenderness in the film is a beautiful revelation and a gift that gives me back so much about her, about our relationship. That wasn’t what I experienced when I was struggling with the loss, so to have it emerge as this delicate, tender thing—I feel grateful. She now gets to go forward into history.
III. HERE ARE OUR DILEMMAS
BLVR: Your mother’s story is an important part of Cameraperson, but you also featured people you’ve filmed in places of conflict around the world. I think another filmmaker might have appropriated other people’s traumas as their own, but you never did.
KJ: I worried a lot about that. I’ve spent my life being obsessed with race and the representation of people who are not in power. I really cared about showing—I’m a white person representing other people’s stories. It’s something I fight when I’m filming. I have all of these images of brown people in prison, or in groups, or not in their homes but on the run. It’s challenging to represent humans who are deserving of the same kind of respect I would like to have, and I’m including my mom in that. Here’s a vulnerable person I’m taking advantage of in certain ways. Showing that I did that with my mom, and I know what that means, and that hurt me, and the audience can understand that it hurt me—that’s a way of speaking about it.
Something nobody picks up on is that almost everybody in the film is Muslim, just not the cliché representation of what it is to be Muslim. But I really struggled around the representation of brownness in the film, because for me, there wasn’t enough. I kept pushing for one more shot of this woman we’d filmed in Liberia, and my editor Nels [Bangerter] was like, “I understand why you care about this, but it’s not in the footage. So in a way you are patronizing the audience. You’re trying to prove something about yourself and how smart you are about racism.” And I finally got it. It’s not about proving what I know. It’s like, here are my dilemmas. Here are our dilemmas. Let us consider them together.
BLVR: And it’s not an answer to the dilemmas.
KJ: No, not even close! It’s an acknowledgment of them. It is terrifying to acknowledge your dilemmas, because that is acknowledging your impotence, your power, your privilege, where you fudge things. It’s like acknowledging your humanity. It’s not noble! It’s kind of a mess. But we can reveal the struggle of it and say, “Yeah, I’m concerned about showing a vulnerable person in a vulnerable state against their will. Yet I’m going to do it, because it also has these beautiful aspects.”
IV. I WANTED THE FILM NOT TO STOP
BLVR: You chose not to include voiceover in the film, which forces the viewer to consider the juxtaposition of the footage more closely. For instance, when you’re in danger in Yemen and the camera turns off, the next shot we see is you at home, with your kids.
KJ: In my safe apartment.
BLVR: Your point was clear: You were in danger, and you could leave and go home to safety, but the people you filmed didn’t have that option.
KJ: I imagined being ripped to shreds over this film. I imagined many ways people could critique me and say that I appropriated other people’s stories. But at a certain point, I said, it’s okay if someone misunderstands me. That’s an acknowledgment of my vulnerability, which is a relinquishing of power. To think that you can protect your image, you’re not fooling anybody except yourself, which is a little bit of what I was saying to my mom. Protecting your image doesn’t work. What is ownership of our own image? It doesn’t exist, actually. Who does an image belong to?
BLVR: Somebody is looking at it, so…
KJ: It’s a relationship. An image is a relationship. That’s why I wanted to call it Cameraperson, because it’s a relationship between a camera and a person.
BLVR: And these images affect people differently. In the film, the filmmaker Charif Kiwan says images of death can strip people of their dignity, but a man counters that the photo of a drowned Syrian refugee galvanized people.
KJ: I included that as a stake in the sand—not to say that’s what I think, but that there are people who think this, and there are moments in history where this feels true to certain people, and then there are moments where you must transgress that. I filmed Mamie Till Mobley for Deadline, and she, at her moment in history, opened her son’s casket and said, “Look what they did to my son. Look at the horror and brutality. Photograph it.”
KJ: Emmett Till’s body sends people into a state of recognition and outrage—that’s one place in this spectrum. And then the James Byrd photos are another place. I am traumatized by seeing those photos. They literally made me ill. And but—how do you evoke the betrayal, the wrongdoing, without sending a person into that state? What does the indelible image do? Does it just mark us and mess with us? Does it send us into a place of new understanding? Does it send us into a place of action? This is my practice, this is my artistic commitment, so I think about it all the time—what does it mean for me to film this moment of history?
That’s part of what I wanted to have happen with this film—by not having voiceover, by not nailing down any of these things, I wanted to pose the questions and let them float, to expand this conversation about what cameras do and what they can be. What are we doing with our gaze, why do we preserve things? All of those questions are multi-faceted, and so I wanted to open up the space for that. This is exactly what I wanted to happen. I wanted the film not to stop.
BLVR: There is also a great deal of love and beauty in the film. It reminded me of this quote from Howard Zinn: “Human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.” So we’re facing this systemic injustice, the weight and burden—how does a human cope?
KJ: Exactly. Exactly.
BLVR: I don’t know if this is enough, but celebrating and cherishing humanity might give you energy to fight those structural problems.
KJ: There are some days where I feel like, if we memorialized all the trauma and loss—we’re just walking in a graveyard. And yet you also have new things growing and little kids, and there’s so much joy in life. The creative act is something that humans value so much. It’s always harder to achieve than it appears. And yet when it appears, it helps. It gives you some piece of you has the courage and excitement to say, I want to do this thing next for me, for my world. And that’s why I wanted to become a filmmaker—because films helped me. They help us beyond this planet that is so heartbreakingly fucked up everywhere, and we need help.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cats. You can follow her @sjpalumbo.