Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT
Cameraperson, a film by Kirsten Johnson, is a poetic memoir, a pastiche of scrapped footage -- a Nigerian midwife working feverishly to save a newborn, a toddler playing unsupervised with an axe in Bosnia, an interview with war crime investigators grappling with vicarious trauma, a still image of the inside of a truck used to drag a man to his death, joyous dancers in Uganda, a room with a Virgin Mary sculpture where genocide occurred -- stitched together from 25 years of documentary cinematography.
With no discernible narrative or chronology, the only orienting information provided being the location of each shoot, Johnson invites us to be with these disparate moments -- this beta -- and provide a holding environment; to contain, to metabolize, and to provide meaning to her experiences, to live and bear these experiences that have "marked her and kept her wondering." These fragments begin to take shape inside the viewer, rendering the subject possible through the "two-way logic of transference" (Civitarese, 2016). And yet, each time, the viewer may make different meaning or may apprehend something different. As experiences are presented, emotional threads begin to be woven, to coalesce, and as the terrain shifts, another thread appears, and something else drifts away.
Derrida makes an appearance in the film, offering his formulation on memory, the unconscious, and meaning. At this point, a deconstructivist perspective is added to this introspective journey, seemingly impelling the viewer to construct and deconstruct meaning and memories over time. As the camera follows Derrida as he crosses a busy street in Manhattan, engrossed in conversation, Johnson stumbles and our view is jostled. Derrida comments, "she sees everything around her, but is blind. She is the philosopher who falls in the well while staring at the stars." Johnson becomes the subject in that moment -- the participant observer -- evoking the question: how does one see beyond framed conscious experience? Civitarese (2016) asserts, " ... no one is immediately transparent to himself and there are endless interpretations of the same event." He continues, "... the meaning of the experience is structured through constant slippage, or 'dissemination': a psychic element (the trace of a sensory or emotional impression) is added to the text of memory and (potentially) changes it completely. It takes its meaning from what precedes and at the same time confers meaning on it."
In another slice, an interview with Eric Davis, an astrophysicist in Austin, Texas, he speaks of quantum entanglement, describing how particles far away from each other are deeply connected and affect one another. Johnson jokes that she feels entangled with him already, illustrating some of what she is trying to reconcile -- how this life and her life's work has touched her, formed her, and lives inside her. The film at times feels like a poignant plea to help her resolve, understand, and live with these people, their trauma, and the intimate experiences in which she is deeply and intricately entangled and entwined, and which have in some way informed and shaped her psyche. Each segment provides the viewer with another shard of Johnson's psyche -- a reflection of her internal world, characters reflected, symbolizing and giving voice to her unconscious world.
Interspersed with these images are fragments of her mother, fading away from Alzheimer's. Her mother is on a farm, and a sudden gust of wind hits her. It is a jarring moment, as if her mother is in that moment gone -- her mind wiped clean. The mother is gone, and with her, in some way, the embodiment of an attempt to make meaning, or to hold onto meaning that is continually shifting and ephemeral. One is left with memories, and how those memories take hold of the psyche, mutate, and live inside us over time.

Civitarese, G. (2016). Truth and the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.