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Observe and Report: The Ethics of ‘Cameraperson’

Cameraperson is observational in ways both purer and more complex than much of what appears in documentaries edited to appear as objective works.

If there is dignity in documentary filmmaking, it is that which can be bestowed by the act of preserving a life that might otherwise remain unseen, underexposed, or forgotten by future generations.

The politicization of social movements, cultural institutions and academic systems around the premise of “objectivity” raises questions about whose perspective dominates many aspects of society, including communication. As a core principle of media ethics, objectivity has long been a contested concept, perhaps most intensely within the fields of news reporting and documentary filmmaking. Certain forms of documentary, with names such as observational or fly-on-the-wall filmmaking or Direct Cinema, among others, are frequently on the battleground of the objectivity discussion. This happens because of the explicit and implicit claims by observational filmmakers that they do not alter or interfere with real life events and subjects, and that their films present actuality with objectivity.

Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is an assemblage of footage originally shot for films from Johnson’s remarkable career as a cinematographer. These films, including high-profile titles like Pray the Devil Back to Hell (2008) and Citizenfour (2014), are not all primarily in the mode of observational filmmaking. However, the footage revived and combined for Cameraperson is observational in ways both purer and more complex than much of what appears in documentaries edited to appear as objective works. Pure in that the individual shots/scenes are more unadulterated than what appears in the finished works. Complex in that this impression of pure observation comes not from attempting to erase the presence of observer-filmmakers, but rather highlighting the interplay of observer-filmmakers and subjects.

There are many themes in Cameraperson, but the one that resonates fully for me is the compound theme of 1. all human lives having value, and 2. that value being affirmed through the interaction of observation. In interviews about the film, Johnson has been candid about what she thinks the film communicates about documentary ethics and the quandaries therein — when to shoot, what to shoot, whom to shoot, etc. But a statement that best defines what I see as the film’s central theme comes from her reflections on the personal, rather than professional, implications of the film.

Talking with Indiewire in January 2016, Johnson discussed the regrets she developed during years of traveling to capture people and stories with her camera and then moving on, wondering what she had accomplished. When she interacted with her history of footage, she found a purpose within it:

A lot of beating myself up about what I hadn’t done, and then there was all this evidence of what I have done. I had this thought, where I was like, “I don’t want my children to have that in the future.” I want my children to have something that is “this is why I was and what I did.” I can imagine my children seeing this film when they are adults.”

In this context “this is why I was and what I did” is a statement of purpose for posterity, with particular meaning for Johnson as a mother who will age and will see her children grow up. But it’s also an effective way to express the way her camera bears witness and the testimonies she aids in creating each time she documents a subject, from any background, anywhere. If there is dignity in documentary filmmaking, it is that which can be bestowed by the act of preserving a life that might otherwise remain unseen, underexposed, or forgotten by future generations.

Cameraperson varies this theme by continually asserting the way the image is produced. As the image-maker is one vital half of this interaction, Johnson frames this film (a collection of otherwise unrelated footage) as a memoir. A purist seeking objectivity in documentary might object to contextualizing a film about diverse subjects within the life of a single person who captured them with cameras. But no less an observational filmmaking exemplar than Frederick Wiseman has said, “I don’t see how a film can be anything but subjective”, and once described his influential Direct Cinema film High School (1968) as “a kind of expedition where the product of the expedition is the final film. The film is both a theory of and a report on what I have learned.” This description of film as both process and product is a good way to understand how Johnson illustrates her life’s work in Cameraperson.

Some of the film’s rumination on process and product is quite straightforward, notably the attention to seeing. To see (with the camera, for the viewer) is the chief activity of the filmmaker. To be seen is the privilege and burden of the subject. In the opening seconds of the film, which take place in Foča, Bosnia, the cameraperson asks “can you see”? It’s a pastoral scene that made me think of Tati’s Jour de fête. But what we see, and how we see it, changes as interview footage gradually associates this place (and Sarajevo) with the grim historical realities of mass graves, rape, killing, and ethnic cleansing.

Another instance of seeing occurs in Kabul, Afghanistan, in which the cameraperson asks a young man who is blind in one eye to cover his wounded eye and describe “everything” that he sees. Then she asks him to cover his unaffected eye, to note that he cannot see “anything”. These early vignettes, which orient the viewer’s attention to the pleasure and freedom of seeing, prepare the viewer for concluding scenes that treat seeing more reflexively.

In one of these later scenes, also set in Foča, Bosnia, this time “five years after” her first trip, Johnson documents the subjects of her earlier footage as they watch themselves in the footage, which now contains their past selves. We recognize them from earlier in Cameraperson, and they too recognize their younger faces and bodies on the screen they are watching. No two reactions are the same, but most of the individuals (who span generations) are smiling.

For the viewer of Cameraperson, the feeling of being haunted by the grimness of the massacres and atrocities we’ve heard about through these individuals, contrasts with the present reality of the contemporary footage, in which the survivors of sorrowful stories are smiling. Through a translator, Johnson shares with the subjects that her memories of them are happy ones, despite the violent past she witnessed through their testimonies. Furthermore, the subjects express gratitude that she captured those images and brought them back with her. Her preservation of their lives can be seen as an important contribution to the process of reclaiming this place from the horrors of genocide.

A separate culminating scene involves Johnson’s mother, who lives with Alzheimer’s disease. This scene, set in Beaux Arts, Washington, follows previous segments with her mother that reflect on the space and time of her decline. Here a shot of her mother’s remains cuts to a shot of her mother, living and responding to directions by her cameraperson daughter. Johnson directs her mother to look at herself in the camera’s viewfinder or monitor, saying, “That’s your face.” The content of the scene examines the mother’s memory and ability to recognize her face and pictures of others, before she loses that ability forever. Cameraperson reorders time, preserving her diminishing ability to see and know her own world even as it points out her inevitable death.

Johnson’s inclusion of her mother, kids, and other family members is an admission that the cameraperson’s self will always influence the images she creates. Cameraperson weaves these personal moments, in which the image-maker’s life is the subject, into other scenes that also involve the inescapability of subjectivity. In one such scene set in Sarajevo, Sejid Koso, a “war crimes site investigator and film production driver” discusses witnessing victims who have survived the unthinkable, returning to identify and interact with the environments of their trauma. Velma Saric, the translator and field producer, responds to his comments by saying that the act of documenting these encounters puts the subjects’ stories “inside” the filmmakers. Conversations such as this highlight the permanent, internalized effects of capturing others’ lives.

An additional portion of the Kabul interview makes this point more directly. The young man who has been interviewed about what he sees, recalls his brother being killed by a rocket. He describes details about his dying brother’s missing face and wounded head. Johnson says “you’re making me cry even though I don’t understand the language.” Her empathy, more informed by the human face she encounters than the language he speaks, influences the frame through which she shares the encounter with viewers. We see his face through her eyes, his emotion through her emotion, his story having moved “inside ourselves” via the cameraperson.

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Cameraperson also features interactions during which the filmmaker intervenes beyond what is appropriate to the purpose of the documentary encounter. The clearest example is a scene shot in Huntsville, Alabama. A health clinic patient, characterized by a frame of her hands as she speaks, discusses the expenses a single parent pays for having a child and explains that she doesn’t believe she can support a second child. She says she “let it happen a second time” and feels “bad”. But then the documentary interview begins to break down when the filmmaker reduces the enormous issue the subject is wrestling with to the statement, “unintended pregnancy is an unintended pregnancy. That’s all it is. That’s all it is.”

The point of the retort is to comfort the subject, but the interruption and judgment interfere with any other direction or breakthrough the interview might have produced. Johnson, shooting the image, adds “And it’s also happened to all of us. We’ve all had unintended pregnancies,” a statement ostensibly intended to universalize the specific experience and lessen the burden the subject is feeling. But to what end? In this circumstance the filmmakers force the subject to conform to their experiences rather than allow her to be seen and heard for the perspective and thought process she offers.

Apart from the significant ethical breach in the Huntsville episode, Cameraperson is in other instances quite purposeful in provoking the viewer to ponder comparisons of different individuals’ and groups’ experiences. These juxtapositions offer an alternative to the traditional context of narrative. Here the conjunctions are the point. Toward the middle of the film, a series of locations appears along with descriptions and/or statistics of the horrors that took place in these locations, from “Karaman’s House: rape and enslavement site during Bosnian War” to “Bibi Mahru Hill Swimming Pool: site of Taliban public executions”. Many of these locations are pictured as present sites of tranquil nature or as being temporarily tamed or absolved by structures and institutions. But the statistics and specifics outlining death and brutality compel us to not have too much faith in the static images, or at least to be curious about their histories.

There are other, briefer sets of related images/activities. One of these combines three depictions of religious devotion, including the cameraperson’s childhood note about God’s greatness, followed by a shot of people praying in a mosque, some quite aware of the camera’s presence, and concluding with a group of teenage girls dancing in white dresses around a cross, set to a song about God’s holiness. This montage is too sketchily relativistic to make much of an impression about the big subject being considered, but perhaps the point is to shift the burden of understanding onto the viewer to follow one or more of the journeys more thoroughly. As most of these images come from narrative documentaries in Johnson’s filmography, that option is available to viewers.

The most potent play of context joins the Sarajevo testimony of “Witness 99”, a Bosnian Muslim former resident of Foča sharing her story of being raped and having “survived the worst” with a scene from State College, Pennsylvania that documents the “first home game after child sex abuse scandal” at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. The announcer at the game mentions victims of childhood sexual abuse in an otherwise completely celebratory event, capped by the singing of the Penn State Alma Mater with its now-harrowing lyrics “When we stood at childhood’s gate, Shapeless in the hands of fate, Thou didst mold us, dear old State”. This contrast, of Witness 99’s strength and will to survive rape versus Penn State’s privilege to ignore the ramifications of rape, is Johnson and editor Nels Bangerter’s most incisive pairing of communities that are worlds apart in their conceptions of what it is to live through, and not be defined by, a particular kind of violence.

There’s a sequence in Cameraperson, this film about seeing, that I couldn’t watch. Early in the film, a scene in Kano, Nigeria illustrates the joy of new life. A newborn baby appears to look directly into the camera. The baby’s cries announce the first moments of life, as a midwife talks to the filmmaker about a twin yet to be born and the four babies born so far that day. Toward the end of the film, two scenes continue this narrative, but not in a way that sustains the joy. A second baby is born and needs oxygen, but the medical center cannot provide it.

As soon as it became apparent that this baby was likely to struggle and die on screen, I obstructed part of the screen by holding my hand out to shield my eyes, blocking the image I didn’t want to internalize. Was it Johnson’s job as a cameraperson to continue to shoot? Likely, yes. But does that mean I have a responsibility to watch the image? No. I know where the story goes. I can hear it. But I choose not to participate in an image that I suspect would haunt me.

Yet even these minutes of Cameraperson that I choose not to see reinforce the power of observing real life with a camera. Specifically, the cameraperson possesses the power to preserve a reality that would otherwise be passing into memory alone. This control of time and substance is a responsibility that can never be fully understood by an observer and subject unsure of what the future holds, when the next moment might affect the decision to concretize the present reality. Johnson’s memoir includes some events she would probably prefer to un-see if given the choice. But the totality of the work speaks to the high value she places on all these lives in front of her camera and her commitment to honor their states of being before and after the intervention of the camera; human beings once somewhere, now available to viewers everywhere, through the cameraperson’s acts of creation.