Review: Cameraperson

written by Andreea Pătru


Kirsten Johnson’s CAMERAPERSON (2016) offers an intimate insight on contemporary issues from around the world by putting together the scenes that marked the author through her wide cinematography career shooting mostly documentaries. Although the film lacks a narrative vertebrae, and the scenes seem random and not as necessarily shocking as one might expect, it is the personal approach and the invisible narrative threads that link those images in a deeply intimate statement of the role of the behind-the-lenses person.

CAMERAPERSON cleverly combines visuals that had a different purpose, such as scenes that were destined for the documentaries Kirsten Johnson worked for, or even left-out ones with some original footage and some personal images that she shot for herself. The scenes are identified by simple location names and a few details of the violent events that took place, only to add context and legitimacy to the images. Regarding content, CAMERAPERSON is a curated combination of all hot-spot, war-related zones, with scenes from Liberia, Uganda, Yemen, Rwanda, Tahrir Square, or Darfur, although harsh imagery is elegantly avoided. Even so, the testimonies of women going through rape, children witnessing the death and torture of their beloved ones, people losing their homes, are more than one can bear and this post-traumatic stress is at the core of the unseen job of the cinematographer.

At one point, the crew of a film Kirsten Johnson worked on share that they have nightmares only by hearing about the atrocities they are documenting, while the real victims confess with some detachment. In this respect, she shows real emotion when interviewing a boy from Afghanistan who lost one of his eyes, and asks him to answer her questions in his own language although he does understand English. Even so, she cannot help herself being moved to tears by his testimony. She asks him to cover and uncover his eyes one by one in this little game of the seen and unseen, which is the heart of the matter in this documentary. The job of shooting individuals in their most vulnerable state is a delicate one, and the power of images is brought into question by the statement that “hearing about it and looking at it is different,” as it is stated in one of the scenes.

The ethical questions that CAMERAPERSON raise regarding the active / passive role of the documentarist are similar to the debate that Kevin Carter’s notorious picture of the Sudanese little girl and the vulture opened about consequences and morality in photojournalism in 1990s. Kirsten Johnson approaches the responsibility of documenting with an emotional investment that maybe some of the projects she worked for as a cinematographer did not explore as much. She avoids the death voyeurism of the deceased Syrian child on the beach and brings a welcomed human dignity and sensitivity to light. The moving scenes with her mother having to deal with Alzheimer’s and the loss of one’s personality enhance even more the involved nature of the filmmaker's job, an attribute that is as hidden as it can be in a conventional documentary. By exposing herself, without actually making an appearance for more than a few seconds, Kirsten Johnson obtains an honest confession of the nature of filming and being filmed. Through the level of commitment that she shows, the cameraperson is someone who sees everything though his/her personal filter, a perspective that the distant observer tends to block. “She sees everything,” as philosopher Jacques Derrida states in one of the scenes that she shot; “we are blind.”

Following the legacy of Chris Marker’s filmmaking and committing to film essay aesthetics, the film includes remarkably well shot scenes, such as a continuous unedited breathtaking shot of a midwife who struggles to save a newborn’s life with minimal resources. A risky programming choice, the scenes that included stories about the atrocities committed during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia received an increased interest from the Sarajevo Film Festival audience, a young bunch that is still attached to the subject through close family bonds and even personal experience.

With a respectful attitude towards the critical moments that are witnessed or vividly recalled, Kirsten Johnson manages to balance the images from countries that are in desperate situations with particular issues from Western countries in a clever gaze upon universal problems. In the overexposed passive image culture that we live in, topics like cruelty, discrimination, immigration problems, terrorism, or institutional abuse, do not submit to geopolitics. Affected by the stories she had to witness, but also in an attempt to let go, the cinematographer-director shows tremendous awareness of the burden of her work. Fundamentally, CAMERAPERSON is the sensitive gaze lacking ideology of a cinematographer who chose humanity above everything.