Kirsten Johnson "The Power of Camera"

A New-York based documentary director, producer and principal cinematographer on over 40 feature-length documentaries. Her Academy short-listed film Cameraperson (2016) was premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Kirsten Johnson was a principal cinematographer on Academy Award-winning Citizenfour (2004) and Academy Award nominated, The Invisible War (2012). 


Kirsten Johnson graduated from Brown University in 1987, with a BA in Fine Arts and Literature. After two years in West Africa working on local fiction and documentary film projects, she attended the FEMIS (the French National Film School) in Paris.

Someone just called me a memory worker, which is kind of fantastic. I call myself a filmmaker, that is what I do, I make films, but I love when they call me a memory worker.

Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnson made the feature documentary Deadline with Katy Chevigny in 2004. A documentary on Illinois Governor George Ryan, who, with 60 days left in office, makes a decision on the fate of death row prisoners, was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. 

Kirsten Johnson’s short documentary for Field of Vision* The Above (2015), about a U.S. military surveillance balloon which floats on a tether high above Kabul, Afghanistan was premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival in the The Intercept’s Field of Vision launch. "I was filming in the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009, working on Women, War & Peace. I saw the blimp and it blew my mind. I had no idea that we were doing that. It was so provocative to me as a visual person. The sky always feels like the territory that frees us from the complexity of human society, and suddenly to see this American thing in their sky was so shocking," said Johnson.

(*Field of Vision is a filmmaker-driven documentary unit that commissions and creates original short-form nonfiction films about developing and ongoing stories around the globe.)

As a visually radical memoir, Academy short-listed Cameraperson (2016) draws on the remarkable footage that Kirsten Johnson has shot and reframes it in ways that illuminate moments and situations that have personally affected her. The film which stacks the cinematographer's footage of war and famine alongside intensely personal clips of her children and dying mother, premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016. "I had the idea of making “Cameraperson” after working on a documentary which fell apart because its protagonist, a young Afghan girl who had initially accepted to be filmed, changed her mind after three years when she saw the almost-completed film and she feared it would put her life in danger. The extent of the ethical conflict that we face as filmmakers at this moment in history, now that the Internet exists, really dawned on me in that moment. In this new territory we’re in, we can’t control where images go. This has an impact on people being filmed and the people making images as well: we can all be traced. It used to be that when you filmed someone in a foreign country who needed protection, you could tell people that footage would never be seen in their country. Today we can’t. In many ways, “Camerperson” is about representation and misrepresentation, about political, ethical questions, as much as it is about trauma, love and tenderness,"said Johnson.

Kirsten Johnson has shot more than 50 films for such directors as Laura Poitras, Alex Gibney, Kirby Dick or Michael Moore. She was a principal cinematographer on short Academy Award nominated film Asylum (2003), Sundance premiere This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), Academy Award nominated The Invisible War (2012) or Emmy Award winning Ladies First (2013). Her camerawork also appears in the Michael Moore's view on what happened to the United States after September 11 - Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or in the Risk (2016) by Laura Poitras - the story of WikiLeak's editor-in-chief Julian Assange which was premiered at Cannes Film festival. 

Kirsten Johnson was also a principal cinematographer on Laura Poitras planned film trilogy - My Country, My Country (2006), about life for Iraqis under U.S. occupation, which was nominated for an Academy Award; The Oath (2010), about two Yemeni men caught up in America's War on Terror. Johnson and Poitras shared the 2010 Sundance Cinematography Award for The Oath. The third part Citizenfour from 2014 details how the War on Terror increasingly focuses on Americans through surveillance, covert activities, and attacks on whistleblowers. Citizenfour won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.


One of the latest projects which Kirsten Johnson shot as a DOP was A Thousand Thoughts (2018) by Sam Green. A live cinema portrait of the legendary classical music group the Kronos Quartet - Sam Green narrates the film and Kronos performs the soundtrack live. The film was premiered during Sundance Film Festival. "Our big challenge was to film a Kronos performance and make it look different from ways concerts are conventionally shot. We decided to film in slow motion and I ended up only being interested in very odd fragmentary moments of the hands and instruments. I remember Sam looking over my shoulder, laughing, and saying "Well, I asked for different!" said Johnson.

Selected filmography 

  • director

Cameraperson (Documentary)  2015
The Above (Documentary short)  2015
Field of Vision (TV Series documentary) (1 episode) - The Above (2015) 2004/I
Deadline (Documentary)  1999
Innocent Until Proven Guilty (TV Movie documentary)  1995
Bintou in Paris (Documentary short) 

  • Cinematography

Oscar's Comeback (Documentary) (post-production)  
A Thousand Mothers (Documentary short) (post-production)  
A Thousand Thoughts (Documentary)  2018
Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge (Documentary)  2017
Independent Lens (TV Series documentary) (6 episodes)  2007-2016
Risk (Documentary)  2016
Cameraperson (Documentary) 2016
The Above (Documentary short)  2015
Very Semi-Serious (Documentary)  2015
Citizenfour (Documentary)  2014
1971 (Documentary)  2014
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity (Documentary)  2014
The Program (Documentary short)  2012
Virgin Tales (Documentary)  2012
A Place at the Table (Documentary)  2012
The Invisible War (Documentary)  2012
Women, War & Peace (TV Series) 2011
The Oath (Documentary)  2008
Throw Down Your Heart (Documentary)  2008
Lioness (Documentary)  2008
Darfur Now (Documentary)  2007
Election Day (Documentary)  2007
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (Documentary) (director of photography)  2006
Deadline (Documentary)  2004
Asylum (Documentary short)  2003
Derrida (Documentary)  2001
Perpetua 664  2001
Profit & Nothing But! Or Impolite Thoughts on the Class Struggle  2001
Brother Born Again (Documentary)  1996