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‘Cameraperson’ Explores Kirsten Johnson’s Life in Documentary Production

"A lot of it is the kinds of things that wouldn’t be included in the film I was shooting," says Johnson about the documentary.

If you follow documentaries, you’ve likely seen the compelling work of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Her work on Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden; The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s look at rape in the ranks of the U.S. military; and many other films has offered viewers fascinating glimpses into the creative process of a true photojournalist. With Cameraperson, Johnson has curated clips and outtakes from her more than 20-year career.

How much material did you go through to find these clips?

Kirsten Johnson: Editor Nels Bangerter and I were working from a 12 TB drive, which is thousands of hours of standard-definition video. Of course, last week I did a shoot with a 6K digital sensor and shot 4 TB worth of footage in a day!

What were you looking for?

Johnson in Rwanda. Photo by Gini Reticker.

We searched for evidence of me in the footage, and we looked for the “edges of things”—me behind the camera or interacting with directors. Not all but a lot of it is the kinds of things that wouldn’t be included in the film I was shooting.

Some moments offer clues about the techniques you and your directors have used to conduct powerful interviews. It was fascinating when director Johanna Hamilton of 1971 asks the man who’d broken into FBI headquarters decades earlier to re-enact what he’d done with a real lock and key, and his hands started shaking.

Yes! I really like that part. In the film, you don’t see him with the key, just the part of him answering questions afterwards. But when he was talking, something is happening with his breath and you can hear how shaken he became from reliving that moment decades earlier. We as human beings all have blind spots where we don’t quite understand what’s going on when it’s happening, and there’s so much evidence of that in this kind of work.

On the technical side, you must have worked with a lot of different camera types and form factors over 20 years.

Kirsten Johnson. Photo by Kathy Leichter.

I’ve gone through so many cameras. I started in 16mm and 35mm film and then worked through a wave of small standard-def cameras with integrated lenses, and then I went to Betacam and VariCam—big shoulder-mounted cameras. Now I love being able to use beautiful prime lenses on relatively low-budget cameras like Sony’s FS7.

For me, one of the most important technological changes has been the shift from the viewfinder to the pull-out screen. I’m left-eyed, and when I put my eye up to a viewfinder, my face is really hidden by the camera. I love to make eye contact [with subjects]. I was at B&H Photo the other day and I saw a camera (I forgot what kind it was) with a screen that comes out that’s the size of a tablet. I thought, “Great! I can do this work till I’m an old lady!”