An Invitation to Witness in Cameraperson

Cameraperson is an audiovisual memoir of documentary camera operator Kirsten Johnson’s 25-year career. It features a pastiche of images and occasional titles, but no voiceover or staged interviews. The film results in a deep meditation on creating documentary images and sound and their ethical implications.

Cameraperson opens with a title that reads

“For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.”

The footage comes from multiple documentaries that sharp viewers may recognize, including Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014), Trapped (Dawn Porter, 2016), and Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004), among many others. Johnson also weaves in footage from her own life, particularly with her young twins and with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

The images range from the mundane to the near suspenseful. In Missouri, Johnson sits alongside a rural road while cars swoosh by and clouds build in the sky. Multi-pronged lightning strikes and Johnson gasps, though after the thunder rumbles through, Johnson sneezes twice.

A more suspenseful moment occurs in Yemen. She and the director ride in a car with a driver while trying to get footage of the Sana’a Central Prison without getting caught by authorities. She manages a couple angled views before soldiers stop them and demand they get out of the car. Then the sequence cuts to black, leaving the outcome of that situation a mystery.

Other scenes raise questions of what not to show. In an interview with a mass rape survivior, Johnson frames the woman’s hands, using an extreme close-up on her gestures and smoking. In another interview with a young woman seeking an abortion, Johnson again frames the woman’s hands, showing her fidgeting, crossing her arms, and plucking at the holes in her jeans. These setups capture these women’s experiences while retaining their dignity and anonymity.

Another kind of vulnerability emerges in an autobiographical documentary about mental illness and suicide and the living people it affects. As the participant talks about the effects left behind, she gets frustrated and angry, throwing items and papers across the room. She begins to cry, and slides off the bed to the floor, facing away from the camera. Johnson comes around the bed with her camera in hand, still rolling, but remains at a distance, not zooming in on the woman’s face.

The images also offer a sense of surprise and discovery, sometimes in powerful ways. In reviewing the evidence in the case of James Byrd Jr.’s dragging death, people begin to pull the chain that dragged him out of a bin. Instead of waiting for the chain to be unfurled, Johnson peers into the box, showing the chain’s weight and the death that it brought.

Johnson includes images of her family, such as her twin children and their grandfather as well as footage of her now-deceased mother. In various podcast interviews Johnson talks about how her mother always took her own pictures but she rarely appeared in anyone else’s pictures. She describes how her mother would have disliked appearing in these images, but these images show the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease and its effects in those suffering from it.

While the images chosen for this pastiche are compelling, the role of sound struck me even more. Documentaries frequently are quite noisy with all the voices in the talking heads and voiceover narration, not to mention added music and location sound. Cameraperson eschews talking heads, voiceover, and music, relying instead on location sound.

The result is often quiet. In some scenes, insects and birds dominate the soundtrack. A sharp wind whistles through, throwing Johnson’s mother off balance for a moment. Snow rumbles off the roof in an almost “natural” punctuation to an intense moment in the autobiograhical documentary.

In other scenes we hear Johnson’s comments and her reactions to what happens before her camera. In one scene a toddler plays with an ax, and Johnson worries whether to intervene.

A series of images shows sites of mass rapes and deaths from around the world, including Rwanda and Bosnia. As the series plays, a thudding occurs on the soundtrack. The thudding continues, creating a heavy rhythm that punctuates the weight of the images and their meanings, despite their current mundane appearance. The thudding turns out to be athletes diving onto a thick gym mat.

Sometimes you desperately want to hear the right sound. One particularly difficult set of scenes comes from a Nigerian maternity ward. According to the midwife, a mother arrived carrying twins. One twin was born without incident, but the other twin remained, requiring drugs to induce further labor. The baby finally arrives, but he struggles. As the midwife tries to help him, the infant is quiet — too quiet. The midwife sucks fluid out of the baby’s lungs, uses a device to get air into his lungs, and slaps him on the backside to help him further. These sounds are sharp and clear on the soundtrack, but their relative quiet is unnerving until the baby’s cry pierces the silence. After the midwife swaddles the infant, the quiet returns, this time with low car horns beeping outside. He is too quiet for someone just arriving in this world.

For those seeking a coherent message and smooth flow among the images, Cameraperson will frustrate. But neither of those are the point. Cameraperson invites us into Johnson’s world behind the camera. That invitation brings us into the ongoing relationship among technology, operators, and participants. It is an invitation to witness, and a privileged one at that.