Kirsten Johnson is a US-American documentary cinematographer. We‘re showing her essay film Cameraperson from April 5th.
Kirsten, you’ve been working as a documentary DoP for a very long time. Was fiction film ever an option for you? As a cinematographer, do you find it more appealing to film a situation in which you might not know what the outcome will be?
Like many people who love films and wish to make them, I have learned over time how incredibly interesting the difference is between what we hope to make and what we actually make. I have written several feature-length fiction screenplays, only one of which I actually shot. That film never made it to the light of day which broke my heart at first and now I realize was simply a step in the process of me learning to make films. I have many unmade films in my heart that don‘t have shapes yet. What I do know since making Cameraperson is that I want to make films that push the boundaries of what films can be. I remain ever fascinated by the ways in which the notions of “fiction” and “documentary” intertwine and inform each other. The next project I am working on contains elements of both as I attempt to explore what the end of my father‘s life means to him. It‘s going to be a comedy. He will live and “fictionally die” (working with stuntpeople to enact his “death”) in each scene of the movie and then just keep coming back to life until he really does die for real. It‘s all about the ways in which we never see death coming, which is very much about contending with our lack of capacity to control outcomes. It is absolutely the case that my decades of working as a documentary cinematographer have revealed to me how much pleasure and discovery there can be when we accept that we have no idea what‘s going to happen. It‘s an open approach to the world and how to be in it, which I guess is part of why I wanted to engage in
documentary in the first place. I wanted to connect with worlds I didn‘t know, I wanted to feel the tingle of not-knowing... now those feelings are often combined with extreme questioning of self and motives and choices, particularly when the documentary work one does means that one attempts to translate the lives of others. The challenges and questions of documentary work haven‘t stopped since the moment I first picked up a camera.
When did you first start to think about making Cameraperson? I wonder whether the starting point was more a personal one – creating a memoir – or the urge to shed light on to the profession of a cinematographer. And how long did it take you to complete it? You must have much rewatched hundreds of hours of material..
Cameraperson didn‘t start as an idea. It grew out of a film I couldn‘t make which was set in Afghanistan. I couldn‘t finish that film after working on it for four years because one of the young women who was featured in it became too concerned about the dangers it might cause for her when she saw the nearly completed film. Not wishing to endanger her, I accepted that the film could not be finished and the experience provoked me to think about my role as the person behind the camera and the relationships I had shared with people over time. If you count the beginning of that film as the start of Camera-
person, then the film took me six years to make. If you count the oldest footage in the film as the starting place, the film took me 25 years to make! I did rewatch hundreds of hours of footage, but I didn‘t watch the thousands of hours that I‘ve shot. I had really specific scenes and places I wanted to revisit. Each time I contended with a set of footage, it would remind me of other material I wanted to see again, so it was very much like opening a Pandora‘s Box that kept revealing another that I wished to open.
When you say in the beginning of the film that these images are the ones that marked you over the course of your career I’m wondering how present they still were for you and whether they were visual memories for you or rather somewhat unconscious reminders of ethical and practical questions that you have to ask yourself constantly while shooting.
We chose the word "marked" very consciously for the ways in which it means many things. The work I have done as a cameraperson over the years has both impacted me greatly in the moment of filming - with feelings ranging from euphoria to impotency to despair to wonder, as well as made me reflect upon what I have filmed over time in ways that have haunted me, made me miss people, made me proud, made me question. I now think of images as relationships. Once begun, they are unending.
You’ve travelled to and filmed in many war zones and regions, where the traumas of conflicts are still very present. And I presume that mostly you and the people you film don’t speak the same language. How do you communicate over what you want to and are allowed to film?
Communication with other people when filming is as complex an undertaking as communicating in a person-to-person way, but it is compounded by all of the many ways in which the camera‘s presence shifts the dynamics. When one frames images, one includes and one excludes. Those choices made in the moment then reside in the images and remain over time, impacting both the people who have been filmed and the person who has done the filming. Since no one can know the future, no one can truly give informed consent, even though I do believe it is the ethical responsibility of those who film to think as deeply as they can about their relationship to the agency of those they film. Sometimes when I film, I am only catching the eyes of another person for a few minutes through the camera, sometimes I have an ongoing filming relationship with them over years. I am always seeking to be respectful and connected, to always question my assumptions and the way in which the limits of my own subjectivity blind me, but I don‘t always pull that off! Humility is where it‘s at, because as a cameraperson, even if you do speak another person‘s language, you still have almost no understanding of what‘s happening inside of them.
Whereas usually, as a hired cameraperson, one is not very involved in what happens with the images after they are shot, for this film, as a director, you had to think about how to assemble the images. And you chose to edit often by association rather than through a linear argument or strictly by topic. Can you tell us a little bit about the editing process and these choices?
The editing process of Cameraperson was one of the most gratifying creative collaborations of my life. I initially worked with Amanda Laws on the film set in Afghanistan and her incredible commitment to helping me understand how to let that film be transformed into an exploration of my life as a cinematographer made Cameraperson possible. I was very afraid of revealing myself initially and our work together gradually allowed me to feel safe enough to expose the many questions that fill me. She was incredibly generous emotionally and laid the groundwork for the very rigorous work we did together with Nels Bangerter who edited Cameraperson. Nels understood that the film could give the viewer the tools for the ways to watch it as the film went along. We wanted it to be as close to what I experience internally when I film as possible. Nels discovered that the evidence of that could be created by a very consciously ordered accumulation of material. It is not linear nor is it strictly arranged by topic. We wanted each scene to hold as many of the questions I have as possible and to place it in an order that would allow the viewer to access those questions.
Has the making of Cameraperson affected how you film now, has it changed your work?
Making Cameraperson has been an incredible gift. Through the struggle and the search of making it, I had the chance to articulate the many questions that have turned in my mind for years and to revisit many of the extraordinary people I learned to love through filming them. I missed people and mourned their absence. The film gave me the chance to see them again and to share our filming relationship with the world. The change in me is that now I understand filming to be emotional and spatial time travel in ways that I never imagined.