For more than 30 years, Kirsten Johnson has seen the world from behind the camera.
“[It’s] taught me to be quiet,” she says. “To wait for things. And listen and look at people’s bodies and the way they move as something separate from the words coming out of their mouth.”
Johnson is a cameraperson. Documentarians hire her to jet around the globe, drop into situations and film. She says it’s overwhelming and bewildering, but it’s also taught her “about systems in the world,” commonalities and specificities everywhere, and, “in many ways, it’s taught me to become myself.”
And what do you do when you learn so much? You share it.
Released in 2016, Cameraperson is Johnson’s memoir, a collection of previously unused footage she shot over 25 years as a documentary cinematographer.
“It grew out of a need to contend with this accumulation of footage I had filmed over all of these years,” she says. “It was just a growing need in me that I didn’t understand when I started it.”
The results are stunning. Though there is no strict narrative to the film, Cameraperson is expression through juxtaposition: Two children playing in Johnson’s living room mirror two children playing in Bosnia; violent crimes at home, violent crimes abroad; a boxer stalking the halls of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center searching for his mother, and Johnson’s camera searching her mother’s face for signs of recognition.
“When it was finished, it was so new to me,” Johnson says. “It was such a revelation. … I assumed I would be looking at this footage I had shot with a new perspective. But what I didn’t understand was that this footage contained evidence of me and who I was, and that the putting together of that footage in a certain order would really reveal things about me that I had no awareness of.”
That “certain order” also works wonders for the audience. Like all great works of art, Cameraperson is a Rorschach test, one that changes every time you watch it.
“Film gives you new ways of seeing what you already know about life,” Johnson says. “What we think we’re seeing and what we project on what we’re seeing.”
For instance: “You can see a person who’s got amazing smile lines and is constantly smiling, but you’re seeing eyes that look far away or eyes that are full of pain.”
Some might call that the iceberg theory, for others it’s observation. Johnson prefers the word “searching,” and it’s what makes Cameraperson a powerful piece of work.
“That searching,” she says, “searching for the difference between what a face tells about what someone has been through, and then what eyes tell about where they are in that very instant.”