The joys of being a documentary cameraperson are endless and obvious: I get to share profound intimacy with the people I film, pursue remarkable stories, be at the center of events as they unfold, travel, collaborate, and see my work engage with the world. I experience physical freedom, the chance at artistic expression and discovery in each moment I hold a camera. No wonder I’ve been doing it for 25 years and love my life.

And yet, the dilemmas I face while holding my camera are formidable. There are the concrete challenges I must face in the moment - how to frame, find focus, choose the direction to follow. The other troubles are implicit and often also unseen by the audiences of films I shoot:

  • The people I film are in immediate and often desperate material need, but I offer little to nothing material.
  • I can and will leave a place I film (a war, a refugee camp, etc.) when the people I film cannot.
  • I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.
  • I ask for trust, cooperation and permission without knowing where the filming experience will lead the subject.
  • I alter the balance of power by my presence and act on behalf of one side or another in a conflict.
  • My work requires trust, demands intimacy and entails total attention. To both me and the people I film, it often feels like a friendship or family, but it is something different.
  • I know little about how the images I shoot will be used in the future and can not control their distribution or use.
  • My work can change the way my subject is perceived by the people who surround him/her and can impact reputation or safety for years into the future.
  • I follow stories the director I work for does not need and/or want me to follow.
  • I fail to see or follow stories the director I work for hopes I will follow.

I’ve been aware of these dimensions for most of my career, as are most documentarians, and have longed discussed them with colleagues. What I didn’t know is how the accumulation of these dilemmas over time would begin to impact me. And what I didn’t anticipate even as recently as 5 years ago when this film began, is how many more people in the world would be filming on their cell phones as well as seeing images from every part of the globe, communicating visually and instantaneously. Surveillance, political repression, censorship, and the possibility of global distribution of images filmed by any individual on the planet impact all of us and our relation to filming in shifting and unprecedented ways.

In making CAMERAPERSON, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment. We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed. Our hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. Like in the film, this is an invitation to you and an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed.

With thanks,

Kirsten Johnson