DOCHOUSE PROFILES: Kirsten Johnson

Tuesday 24 January, 2017

In our new series for the DocHouse blog, we speak to some of the key people working in the world of documentary.

Up first is award-winning director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Johnson is the principal cinematographer of over 40 feature-length documentaries including Citizenfour, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and The Invisible War. Her latest film CAMERAPERSON sees Johnson draw on footage shot during her 25 year career to create both a visual memoir of her own personal journey and a thoughtful interrogation of the power of the camera. The film has picked up numerous awards including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking at the recent Cinema Eye Honors Award. 

CAMERAPERSON opens at the DocHouse on Friday 27th January, with a Skype Q&A between Kirsten Johnson and writer Sophie Mayer. It will then screen daily. Book your tickets: HERE. 

DocHouse: What does an average work week involve for you?

KJ: The work I do as a cameraperson asks that I simultaneously find the way to think, move, feel, question, and aspire. I have never had an average work week in my entire life because the job is about engaging with what can never be known.

DocHouse: What was your first job in documentary?

KJ: Filming a man whose intellectual rigor intimidated me so much, I could barely hold the camera: Jacques Derrida. Over time, I have come to believe that in the brief period of time I filmed him, he challenged me to understand that it might be possible for me to express my thoughts through images.

DocHouse: If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

KJ: If only I had taken a moment every day of filming to write something down about who I was with and what it meant to me in the moment, to take a photo of the people I was working with, to keep track of all I was doing and how intensely I was living, but clearly, I couldn't - I was giving everything I had to being in the moment and I appreciate that about my younger self, who never could have imagined being my older self.

DocHouse: What role do you think documentary filmmakers play in today’s world?

KJ: The potential for independence from political and economic compromise means that with a great deal of stamina, curiosity, humility and audacity, documentary filmmakers can make work that is incredibly meaningful in a world increasingly constrained by pressures against freedom of expression.

DocHouse: What has been your career highlight been so far?

KJ: Sharing the challenges and revelations of making CAMERAPERSON with such incredibly brilliant and supportive collaborators, including all of those who helped bring it to audiences and the audiences themselves.

DocHouse: What were your favourite doc(s) of the past year?

KJ: STARLESS DREAMS, set in a prison for girls in Teheran, is a film that should have been impossible to make on so many levels, and yet, Mehrdad Oskuei with his incredibly gentle presence, found a way. It is just a miracle. I had the chance to briefly meet the maker of the extraordinary film A Separation Asghar Farhadi recently. I was so moved to be able to express both to Asghar and Mehrdad what a debt of gratitude I owe to their great friend, Abbas Kiarostami, who died too early this year, but leaves us so many films that will forever astonish us.