In Ways of Seeing, the late art critic John Berger speaks about the evolution of how we understand images and the point at which “the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognised as part of the vision. An image became a record of how X had seen Y.” Such a consideration lies at the very heart of Kirsten Johnson’s exceptional documentary Cameraperson, a reflection on more than two decades spent shooting non-fiction cinema.
Johnson’s work with luminaries of the medium including the likes of Kirby Dick, Michael Moore and Laura Poitras already makes her a prominent figure in shaping modern documentary. “I ask you to see it as my memoir,” states an opening title card that provides the only real narration in a film that otherwise just gives basic geographical detail for the footage displayed. By opening with this request, Johnson explicitly draws a connection between what they are seeing on screen and the person framing the image. It’s a fascinating experience that prompts the audience to really think about each shot and sequence and why, of the hundreds and hundreds of hours she must have shot, these are the ones with which Johnson has chosen to share in order to convey her own story.
In some instances this might seem obvious – a moment of uniqueness, startling beauty, deep emotion, or humour – but in others the reasons are less apparent and the viewer is challenged to engage with what they see in an entirely new way. This is especially powerful because all too often audiences accept documentary images as incontestable fact without giving them such thoughtful deliberation. In this particular instance, Johnson is pushing the audience to see these images as a dialogue between herself and these subjects, both in the frame of her representation of them and their impact on her. “How do we deal with the post traumatic stress, we collect these stories,” she asks at one point.
Despite the fact that she remains behind the camera throughout, she is very present both in the audience’s mind’s-eye and in discussion with her respective directors, interaction with subjects, or ripping up weeds to clear her composition. In foregrounding this relationship between visual output and the image-maker, Johnson also raises important questions about the ethical implications of the medium. Although this vein runs throughout the work, it is especially evident in two specific sequences. In the first, Johnson is watching as two infant boys play with an axe amidst a pile of chopped logs, unaware of closely they are edging towards disaster. The sequence draws audible gasps from Johnson – her internal conflict over where or not to intervene emanates from the screen almost visibly.
Elsewhere, Michael Moore oversteps one of the cardinal rules by personally offering aid to a serviceman who goes on the record with him despite knowledge of the mandated punishment. Questions like these further complicate the minefield that these filmmakers have to navigate and Cameraperson highlights them brilliantly whilst also treating audiences to some startling footage – from heart-warming to heart-stopping – that they won’t have seen before.
Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is out on DVD and iTunes. dogwoof.com/cameraperson
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson