Kirsten Johnson was raised in a Seventh Day Adventist household in Seattle, where the only films she was allowed to watch were missionary movies. Despite this, says the cinematographer/director, who is being honored with this year’s Tribute Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, “I was turned on seeing worlds different than mine, and more and more I became interested in world cinema as I moved away from that world.”
Johnson is the principal cinematographer on more than 40 feature-length documentaries, particularly “The Above,” and co-directed “Deadline” with Katy Chevigny. She has also shot and/or directed films involving subjects such as the death penalty, sexual violence in the military, closeted gays and African-Americans in the prison system.
“Kirsten is an exceptionally talented, and prolific, cinematographer,” says Sadie Tillery, Full Frame’s Director of Programming. “She has traveled the world, documenting a wide range of subject matter. Throughout, the strength of her images lies not just in her eye for the frame, but in her ability to connect with the people within it.”
“I had a sense there were mixed messages in the world,” says Johnson of her activist filmmaking, “and the fact of my own ignorance of all that in my childhood, I wanted to see it and understand it more. There was an impulse around the fact certain people have more power than others, and how can you be a part of shifting that equation. And the camera can be a powerful thing. When you come with a camera, you come with a promise of some kind, that you are going to translate someone’s realities.”
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Johnson, who studied filmmaking in France and spent two years in West Africa perfecting her craft, says “as soon as I held a camera I fell in love with it.” But she’s also conscious of the Heisenberg Effect aspect of documentary filmmaking, that the very act of observing something changes it.
“I take it as a given, and there are things the camera might reveal that might be different from what the person wants to communicate,” she says. “I have never imagined my camera is objective, and it is connected to what I know about the world. I am very aware of my blind spots.”
Some of those blind spots might be on view in Johnson’s latest film, “Cameraperson,” in which she grapples with ethical and other issues raised by her filmmaking and features footage she’s shot over 25 years. “It’s about acknowledging how much goes into the filmmaking process,” she says. “A huge amount is left out, and part of it is the experience of the people making the film. The ethical questions you ask while filming are also left out. It’s about including these things, and about what the accumulation of doing the work has meant over time.”
Currently involved with several projects, one about a left-leaning rabbi, the other the Kronos Quartet, Johnson says one of the greatest lessons she learned about her craft was “learning to shut up.” This was back when she was working on a film about French philosopher Jacques Derrida, “and I kept trying to be clever, to throw in a line or two, and at a certain point he said, ‘I can’t be interrupted by all you people talking to me.’ So I stayed in Derrida’s house for eight hours and didn’t speak.”
CORRECTION: Previous versions of this article misstated some of the movies Johnson directed. Correction made on Sunday, April 3, 2016.
Who: Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Honoree Kirsten Johnson
What: “Cameraperson,” her latest feature
When: 4:30 p.m. Friday, April 8