The Image is an Accident is a World: The Fragmentary Resilience of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

Cameraperson | Janus Films
Janus Films

What does it mean to wash your hands of cinematic continuity when assembling incongruous images? What does it mean when we link images impressionistically, rather than according to spatial and temporal logic?

Director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s film Cameraperson is a collage memoir composed entirely of b-roll footagethat is, scraps of footage culled from countless films she has shot over her careerstrung together as if they were, as poet Jorie Graham once wrote, a “necklace of accidents.” The detritus of previous projects, images that never made the cut (or made the cut but persist in Johnson’s mind, in her field of vision) achieve their primacy in Cameraperson, a reconstruction that makes space for radical resiliencenothing is waste; everything is fodder.

The first image of Cameraperson attunes the spectator to the concept of image-as-accident that constitutes Johnson’s world, and her life experiences. The handheld camera walks shakily along a fence line in Bosnia, Johnson’s voice a furtive whisper as the frame traces the wildflowers along the barrier like an absentminded finger. As Johnson ambles, the lens struggles for the correct focal length: there’s so much to see, Johnson seems to suggest. The joy is in the search, the scramble of all the images and details that scatter like seeds. Almost immediately, she encounters an elderly gentleman herding sheep and they exchange pleasantries; Johnson then follows him, the camera spasming, herky-jerky like her swift movements. Johnson finally cuts to a static frame: she’s framing the man with his sheep in twilight in a long shot, the motionless camera fixed and watchful, suggesting objectivity and authority.

And then her hand reaches into the frame, pulling weeds. We see the editorializing of the shot, the rearrangement of the mise-en-scène, in real time. The subsequent scene, in which the credits appear, is a long shot of a field alongside a highway in Nodaway County, Missouri. A dark sky blisters with lightning, and Johnson involuntarily gasps at the flash of light and thunder. As she sneezes, the camera shakes slightly, the image mimetic, completely in tune with Johnson’s body, not just her eye. Rather than cut out her interjection, her hand, her voice, Johnson relinquishes control, opting, instead, for unbridled delight when encountering the aleatory. If an accident interrupts the image, Johnson sculpts it into a world of its own, a world that informs her sense of our collective connectivity. Unfettered from narrative constraints, these images are made whole and complete by Johnson’s singular fascination with all she sees.

Johnson is a cinematographer and producer who has shot footage for Laura Poitras’ The Oath and Citizenfour, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, and Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman’s Derrida, among others. She’s traveled all over the globe to capture these stories, but currently teaches in NYU’s journalism program. In her written director’s statement for The Criterion Collection’s release of Cameraperson Johnson writes, “I follow stories the director I work for does not need and/or does not want me to follow. I fail to see or follow stories the director hopes I will follow.” Implicit in Johnson’s statement is the ways in which the raw footage that is shot and the footage that makes it into the edited film can be at odds with one another or with the director’s intentions. Filming people, places, and things is often left to chance and circumstance. Johnson lets her eye wander according to where its attention is tugged, and Cameraperson pulls our own attention according to Johnson’s vagaries.

One could apply Hannah Frank’s thoughts on montage to Johnson’s assortment of images: “This is the imitation of the process of thought: multidimensional, contradictory, simultaneous, contrapuntal, stereoscopic.” Yet while Frank explores montage via ideological filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, I resist such a political reading of Cameraperson at the level of juxtaposition. Rather, what makes this film radical is the personal, subjective persistence of these cinematic fragments Johnson has collected over the years. Rather than push this “leftover” footage to the margins, Johnson centers these visual scraps. In this way I do not just see a mind at work, as one does in an essay film, but a heart at work, too. These sequences do not always need to make linear or logical sense. They are snapshots of particular moments in particular spaces in time. Some of the subjects on camera are strangers, others family (including her twins, Felix and Viva). But all are equally worthy of Johnson’s attention—and ours.

The film opens with a letter to the viewer, signed in Johnson’s own handwriting. It’s an invitation to the spectator that welcomes us into the footage that has lingered in the forefront of Johnson’s mind, even if other cinematographers might have relegated certain shots to the skeuomorphic trash-bin on the desktop. Another shot, of Johnson’s hand reaching into the frame in Sana’a, Yemen to wipe the windshield through which the camera peers, unsettles the frame as a flat surface. There is a faint reflection of Johnson’s arm that overlays the otherwise clear wide shot of men standing outside the car smoking. In Cameraperson, Johnson lends credence to the process of setting up the shot itself, but not to the finished product. She stubbornly eschews the highly stylized in favor of something much more personal, interactive, and disruptive. People touch the frame (Johnson’s hands, her children’s grubbier ones) and, in turn, Johnson is touched by what the frame, and particularly those within it, reveals.

The most deeply personal part of this project is the footage of Johnson’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s. Johnson lets her mother simply be on camera; even if her mother is in the process of forgetting, Johnson’s film does not forget her. The only moment in the film in which we actually see Johnson is the second to last shot: Johnson’s mother is combing her own hair, and then combs her daughter’s. Johnson flips the camera so that they are both in the frame. Johnson’s inclusion of her image is an act of solidarity with her mom: Johnson does not just look at her, they look at one another, admired and admiring in turn. And though we suspect, given its placement towards the end of the film, that Cameraperson may end with this tender moment between mother and daughter, Johnson instead ends on a city street in a long take. In this way, the importance of the people in the frame are given equal weight to her mother. Johnson doesn’t end with her mother’s narrative precisely because we are all linked and connected. Her film is not an exercise in solipsism; rather, it’s an exercise in solidarity. In this way, one common thread links all the characters in Cameraperson: those that might otherwise get pushed to the margins of society’s thoughts and limits of sight (a boxer who loses his match, a young pregnant woman at a clinic that offers abortions, a farming family in Bosnia), collate here in Johnson’s poly-vocal collage film.

In her 1989 essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” bell hooks writes,

[Marginality] is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance. It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose—to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center—but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist.

Johnson’s fascination with, and dedication to, the margins of narrative, the margins of the image, allows the spectator, as hooks promises, “the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to image alternatives, new worlds.” But the worlds in these images are not new, merely overlooked, underexplored, fraught with traumas largely invisible to most of the world. Guantanamo Bay or Partizan Sports Hall (the location of imprisonment and mass rape of Witness 99 and other Muslim women and girls) in Foča, Bosnia are sites to which Johnson forcibly turns our attention, reminding us that these landmarks, these institutional structures, existed and exist, no matter how hard we might try to forget them and the violence enclosed within their walls. Through Johnson’s emphatic and empathetic eye, her constantly curious gaze, accidents “nourish” Johnson’s “capacity to resist.” Though fragmented, discontinuous, and piercingly personal, Cameraperson is a testament to what it means to be open and alive to the variegated voices of our world. Be startled to total attention, Johnson seems to say. That call to action, that love, is in the looking.