The accessibility of smartphones has turned everyone into a cameraperson. To make one's career as a professional cinematographer, however, requires a fearless point of view and a willingness to immerse oneself in often uncomfortable and perilous situations. That is what Kirsten Johnson has done for 25 years, and Cameraperson gives viewers an intimate and meditative look at her work.
Described by Johnson in the opening scene as "my memoir," the award-winning film is culled from footage she has shot over decades around the world. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative, the film invites us behind the lens into this cameraperson's world, where we witness a captivating collage of episodic images and stories connected thematically, texturally, sonically and emotionally. The film vividly combines documentary, autobiography and ethical inquiry.
"In making Cameraperson, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment," explained Johnson. "We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed."
The New York-based documentary cinematographer adds, "Our hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera, as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas that a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. The film itself is an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed."
Scenes from the two dozen critically acclaimed documentaries Johnson has shot, including Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Darfur Now (2007) and Citizenfour (2014), are represented in Cameraperson. There's a powerful montage of places, buildings and spaces (the World Trade Center, Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square, Serbian genocide burial sites in post-war Bosnia) united by the atrocities that occurred in those places. But perhaps the film's most moving moments are the tender passages where Johnson interacts with her mother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer's.
"Cinematographers are invisible artists, perhaps especially in documentaries, which often emphasize content over visual aesthetics," New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote of the film. "Viewers are aware of the faces of the people on screen and the intentions of the director, but we generally don't think about whose eyes we are literally looking through. Ms. Johnson, in correcting that oversight, invites us to reconsider our assumptions about the ethical and emotional foundations of nonfiction filmmaking. Her film's straightforward title turns out to be profound and complicated. The camera may be a machine, but it has the power to reveal a multiplicity of human presences."