When documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson reflected on what she had been doing with her life for the past 25 years she referred to images from the films she’s collaborated on — Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War” (2012), and Laura Poitras’s “Citizenfour” (2014), among others. In her documentary “Cameraperson,” Johnson weaves these together without voice-over (except her own spontaneous asides from behind the camera) and without identification except for the date and place. It coalesces into a visual poem inquiring into the nature of documentary, the role of personal responsibility, and other questions. She put some of these insights into words over the telephone from her home in New York City.
Q. This is such a brilliant concept it’s surprising no one else thought of it. How did you come up with it?
A. I worked from 2009 to 2012 on a film in Afghanistan that featured a couple of teenagers. I sent the nearly completed film to one of the young women and she was upset and said I’m now too afraid to be in this movie. I was blindsided. I knew the political situation had changed. I knew she had changed. But I didn’t really see it coming. I followed her wishes and it encouraged me to question this work. For one thing complicity is impossible because none of us know what the future is going to be. And as that movie was falling apart I was thinking of more stories I’ve told from the past. And because of my mother’s Alzheimer’s I was obsessed with memory. That’s why I started reaching back into the footage.
Q. Did the images have a Proustian effect?
A. The first images I looked at were of the Nigerian maternity ward. I was shocked because though I knew what happened there I only recalled this blurry face of the midwife. But once I got the footage back I remembered absolutely everything. I recognized all of the faces and remembered the 12 hours of really rough filming. That was a revelation: that I didn’t remember what I actually remembered. That encouraged me to look for more.
Q. Did that sequence, in which a woman is bleeding heavily and a baby is suffocating, make you question the ethics of intervention?
A. There is no question that if you could know that if you could save a person’s life you would do that, as opposed to filming them die. And yet there are times when you are filming when you don’t understand what’s really at stake. The impulse to intervene might be the worst impulse, and there have been enough circumstances when I thought I should intervene and it’s been the worst impulse and other times when it’s absolutely clear.
Like the mother hemorrhaging. We went and bought blood in the local pharmacy because the hospital didn’t have any. We didn’t know if it was HIV infected or not but the woman’s life is saved. You do make calls like that.
Q. Do you think you might make a film now with footage you shot for yourself?
A. Part of me thinks there is unfinished business in “Cameraperson.” I would love to revisit those people in that last shot in Liberia and get a chance to follow each of them. It would be great thing if I could meet everyone in the film and find out how they are.
“Cameraperson” is at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. Kirsten Johnson will do a Q&A at the 2 p.m. Sunday screening.