Watching Kirsten Johnson’s 2016 directorial debut, Cameraperson, I found myself thinking both of St. Augustine and of Jacques Derrida, who wrote that photographs were tightly knit with death. Looking at an image, Derrida said, you are seeing not exactly a person but the body of a person, frozen in time, disconnected from their full being, which reminds you of both their death and of your own. And in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’s book on photography written in the wake of his mother’s death, Barthes comes to similar conclusions, linking reminders of mortality and the images that photographs produce.
Cameraperson was one of the best films of the 2010s, a memoir of Johnson’s decades working as a documentary cameraperson. Stitched together mostly from footage from prior projects that had landed on the cutting room floor, the film explores — in a way that evokes Derrida and Barthes — how an image can turn a person into an object to be looked at. A corpse, rather than a being.