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“Any Human Who Films Is Already Part Machine”: Kirsten Johnson Searches for the Ineffable

By Stephanie Jenkins

Through a reflected mirror, Kirsten Johnson holds a camera up to her face.

Behind the scenes of Cameraperson. Image credit: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films.

Kirsten Johnson has been a cinematographer and director since the 1980s. Her acclaimed films as a director include The Above (short, 2015), Cameraperson (2016)and Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020), all of which grapple with the meaning behind making images, their utility in conveying reality, and the strength of documentary images as visual evidence. For this interview, Documentary asked longtime archival producer and producer Stephanie Jenkins (Muhammad Ali, 2021) to catch up with Johnson via Zoom. As a co-founder of the newly formed Archival Producers Alliance, whose other organizers are interviewed by Williams Cole for another piece in this issue, Jenkins has been indelibly wrapped up in on-the-ground organizing for safeguarding audience trust in documentaries as historical documents. This work intersects with Johnson’s topic for her keynote talk at Getting Real ’24 in April 2024, in which she will discuss our changing relationship with bodies—both for those filming and being filmed—in a new era of increasing access to cameras, video surveillance, and generative AI. 

Jenkins’s discussion with Johnson covers her growth as a filmmaker, the impact that making Cameraperson had on her practice, cinema as a useful tool for humanity, and our life cycles in our new “image world.” This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


DOCUMENTARY: Your keynote at Getting Real ’24 will focus on embodiment in our new world of generative AI (GenAI), with cameras being everywhere, and what it means to make images from our bodies in that new context. Why do you find this topic to be important right now, and how did you start thinking about this huge set of ideas?

KIRSTEN JOHNSON: My interest in these questions absolutely emerges from my experience. As a person who got excited about film in the 1980s, and who in my search to find a way to enter the field ended up studying cinematography at the French national film school in Paris [La Fémis], I really loved the physical proximity to the camera, and then what the camera made possible for me. Immediately after graduating, one of my first opportunities was to film with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. And it changed everything. That experience of filming with someone so brilliant just opened up my mind to what was possible, being in space with another person with a camera.

I think of myself as this person who straddles a very critical moment in history in terms of cinema history, but also history. I’m born in 1965. I start filming in the late ’80s. It’s almost the end of filming on film. It’s the beginning of filming on all kinds of problematic formats, but it’s also the emergence of amateur video cameras. And then as I begin to work and have the chance to travel to many different places in the world, I am seeing that certain kinds of colonialism are being left behind, but also that they are absolutely lingering or finding new ways to anchor.

For the people that I’m with, their relationships to filming are all over the map. Some people have never seen a camera before. Some people have never seen a movie before. Then at a certain point, obviously the internet arrives, and then at another point, cell phones with cameras arrive, and everything changes so radically. I spent many, many, many hours, 250 days of the year, filming. I felt this real sense that I was a camera person. Now we are all camera people! 

I encountered all kinds of things at scale, as well as having this very personal, physical proximity to all kinds of experiences. And so, in some ways, it was almost as if I was living in the image world ahead of the image world’s arrival. What I would say is there’s a critical difference in how I was there physically with people, as opposed to me looking at images of something or being in an edit room and looking at all of the footage that I had filmed. And that does change things. Cameraperson was my attempt to grapple with the many questions that a couple of decades of filming posed to me.

The old challenges haven’t gone anywhere. The ethical challenges are ever present—the problems of misrepresentation, the problems of power dynamics—all of those things are still in place. But then adding on top of this is the way the change in the distribution of images shifts all of the relationships between people who film and people who are filmed

D: I’ve been thinking lately about GenAI and the difference between a human bearing witness to something and a machine bearing witness to something. Would you define what’s happening now as different between people versus a person and a machine, and what is happening as machines are coming more into filmmaking?

KJ: I would say I don’t think that’s a simple binary, and I want to make that clear. One of my processes in all of this is always to search for language, because I think much of our language is outdated. Much of our language is nostalgic, much of our language is problematic. We’re drawing all these different histories: military, colonial, missionary, religious, cinematic. So, for example, I am not simply a human body when I work with a camera. I don’t feel like “cyborg” is the word that works for me. I’m still searching for the word, and I feel like this is a collective word that we all search together for. I can see in different ways with a camera than I can as a human. I can see with a telephoto lens. I can see the difference between what is in front of me and what is on my screen. The camera gives me a frame around a reality that I can then move and zoom in on or zoom out of. 

I would just start from the place of “any human who films is already part machine.” That grafting allows all kinds of things. And I would say the other thing that it does is enable this kind of time travel, right? So that we are in the present moment, but even later that day, we can return to what we filmed, see it, think about it, and return to the same place where we filmed it in a new way. Filming allows our consciousness to be laid out in front of us for us to revisit. And then in the edit room, reorder it. 

The difference between a person with a camera and a camera itself is real, but it’s also on a spectrum. What I am doing when I film is many things simultaneously. I have many motivations. I have many ignorances. I have many agendas, many revelations, right? This is true for a machine-operated camera that has an agenda. If it is a surveillance camera in a city, it’s trying to record all of the activity going on in one physical space, so that retrospectively, if something goes wrong, we can revisit what happened and say, oh, that person was there when that car crash happened, contrary to what they said, et cetera.

But what’s the mission of putting many cameras in a city? Is it to create a sensation of surveillance in all of the citizens of that particular place so that they will censor themselves, they will autoregulate, and be more careful? This was the subject matter of The Above, the short film I did. If we imagine a camera is there in the same way as if we imagine God is reading our thoughts, then we create social systems of behavior that are monitored by the people who live within those systems. Those cameras are placed with various almost-philosophies to them.

D: Absolutely. And then leaping to GenAI and this scraping of work that has been done by people to create new images, new realities—I’m curious how you’ve been thinking about it just given your vast amount of experience. Have you looked at Sora [OpenAI’s text-to-video tool]?

KJ: What immediately came to mind is that image of the dog holding the cell phone, which is just so hilarious because it’s kind of that little human hands. And yet when you imagine this dog really looking at a cell phone, suddenly what is generated is a new idea that a dog would be doom scrolling. 

There is a way in which some of the things that AI is generating give me all kinds of pleasure. It’s surrealism, but also new possibility. And of course, one of the first images that Sora creates is a lone man in a spacesuit, in a desolate landscape. It is literally like, how many times do we have to do colonialism? How many times do we have to re-create the image of one great man discovering an uninhabited territory when it is never that? This concept of scraping is one that yields a repetition of things that were already reductive and too simplistic or even problematic in the first place.

The big issue for me is that AI has no relationship to mortality. One of the most basic stakes of being human is that we live, and we die. We don’t know how long we will live. We don’t know when we will die. AI also has no relationship to the emotional contracts that happen between humans. Much of our work as filmmakers, as artists, as whatever we want to call ourselves, is trying to find a way to express the ineffable to others who might understand the ineffable. So, our entire project is one of communication with others whom we may never meet. So much of the artwork we care about is made by people who are long dead. But their work still speaks to us because we are human.

D: Something I love about your work is how much it takes on death and the anticipation of death, really showing that we are scared to be bodies in time. Something that really scares me about GenAI is the glossiness of it. Generated archival footage and photographs all look pristine. I fear that how we want to see others in ourselves is forever youthful. 

KJ: Part of what animates me is that I was raised within this religious tradition of Seventh Day Adventism that anticipated heaven. And I was completely obsessed as a kid with the questions, “Do we get to age in heaven?” “Do all the relationships stay the same?” I was terrified by the concept of infinity. Do I have to stay the same for infinity? One of the sort of hilarious things about being human is you’re at the center of your world, and you believe that you can perceive a lot and understand a lot, then a momentary shift in your reality happens and suddenly your body is altered… and suddenly you realize how incapable you were of imagining what it is to be in your body now.

One of the revelations of Cameraperson was that because I was young, traveling so much, and filming so much, I like many young people didn’t really imagine that my body would change. And then when I looked back at the footage, I realized how I was being changed by doing what I was doing, how I was aging, how my thinking of what was possible and impossible were shifting. 

What we are experiencing, which is unprecedented in human history since the advent of the digital ecosystem, is multiplication at a scale that is not human. It’s so far beyond human, how much we encounter visually, even in the course of one day. We could not physically travel to that many places, we could not be attracted to that many different people, we could not wish we were eating that many different kinds of food. There’s a capacious, voracious, voluptuary thing happening that is beyond our human capacity, but we’re doing it. So, what is that doing to us?

It’s also one thing for me to be doing it, having lived 30 years before the internet proliferated and then doing it after, and another to be a young child for whom this is reality.

Behind the scenes of 'Cameraperson' Kirsten Johnson Kirsten Johnson (in salmon shirt) CREDIT: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films
Behind the scenes of Cameraperson. Image credit: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films.

D: I would love to investigate more how we’re all online and being moved online through these machines that are all in our pockets.

KJ: The acceleration. I would say one thing is we all have to grapple with our own relationship to perception and memory, which shifts over time in our lives in all kinds of ways. Our memory starts to function in different kinds of ways. My father with dementia has said to me, “If you can’t understand what time it is, and you don’t know where you are spatially, it’s very hard to hold onto your idea of yourself.”

Which I just thought was mind-blowing—that realization of how tenuous our consciousness is. I think that a lot of people who are using phones are probably grappling with some piece of that. They’re aware that they don’t remember things in the same way. I would say I’m starting to use photography as a tool in that way. Like, where did I park, you know? 

Cinema is a tool of consciousness. We as feature-length documentary filmmakers are taking big bodies of material and working them and reworking them for months to try to construct meaning in a form that relates to a world of people who already have some vocabulary in this. Somebody doing a TikTok video is trying to express something and make meaning in this totally other form, and there is a community of people who read that language. 

I think it’s exciting, the new kinds of cinematic language that are emerging, attempting to not only speak in these new languages, but to address the fact that most people exist in this type of speed modality. How do we invite people to shift speeds or to make meaning out of the constant plethora? I think we must. Back to the quest for the ineffable, it feels exciting to me when people try to understand in new ways. What doesn’t feel exciting is when people try to repeat what already exists, which is what we have a lot of right now.

D: Rewatching Cameraperson last night, I was thinking of what a beautiful invitation it is for us to all to remember and also what kind of personal archives we’re all making all the time. Could you talk more about what you said before about filming that automatically becomes an archive?

KJ: If we are the person who filmed those things, we were someone when we filmed them and we understood certain things. As time goes on, we remain ourselves. And yet our perspective on what that moment was, what we remember about it, what we care about, the people who have died, who were a part of making it with us—all of those things keep adding in. The revelation of Cameraperson, for me, was I could see my own blind spot, that I experienced pleasure at the same time that I was urging myself so seriously to be ethical all the time. 

I could see all of those things with the help of the collaborators I worked with—I wasn’t able to see them by myself. And I guess that’s the other thing—when we invite other people into these exchanges, when what we make is meaningful enough to us and it allows space for other people—meaning gets made out of that collaboration.

D: I do fall into this apocalyptic fear sometimes that we’re gonna be the bodies on the conveyor belt in Wall-E (2008)… 

KJ: As someone who believed the apocalypse was imminent as a child, and as someone who’s reminded that certain sets of people have already lived through apocalypses, I believe that the apocalypse, like heaven, is a fantasy of simplicity. It’s a fantasy that at some point in time our agency will be taken from us, and we will not have powerful choices to make. But in fact, we have powerful choices to make all of the time. These spirits of resilience, resistance, valuing, meaning making, and trying to figure out how to respect and love the people that we encounter. All of those challenges will continue as long as each of us is alive.

And we will all encounter our own personal apocalypse at a certain moment. It will end for each of us. A narcissistic fantasy about the apocalypse is that everyone’s gonna go with us. It’s all gonna be over once we’re gone. But in fact, much will continue without us, which is painful.

Stephanie Jenkins is a documentary producer and archival researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She co-founded the Archival Producers Alliance in 2023.