Often, when we think of what it means to be disabled, our definition is centered around what a person is not able to do, rather than what they can. The film Vision Portraits features four creatives with a visual disability who have redefined what they are capable of in the face of blindness.
Film writer and director Rodney Evans introduces a writer, dancer, and photographer, all with significant visual impairments, who are showing the world that although their sight may require them to adjust how they engage with their surroundings, it does not stop them from doing what they love.
While living in New York City, Evans began to notice that something was wrong with his vision. While navigating the subway, people would seem to suddenly appear in front of him. At parties, he would sometimes start to miss social cues when meeting new people. When he finally went to a doctor for a diagnosis, he learned that he had a rare genetic disease that was damaging his retinas and progressively deteriorating his peripheral vision. As a filmmaker and cinephile, this diagnosis not only had a potential impact on the trajectory of his career, but it threatened to hinder his enjoyment of a pastime he has been passionate about for years. Vision Portraits explores the personal journey that Evans has taken from his initial prognosis to the creative he is today. Deeply personal and thought-provoking, Vision Portraits presents a unique narrative that is seldom told about what life is like as an artist without a full sense of sight.
Although Evans had his own story to tell, he didn’t start by focusing on himself. Instead, Vision Portraits tells a story centered around the perspectives of others. What do we see when we can see very little or nothing at all? How does the world change when the lens we use to observe it is altered? If you ask photographer John Dugdale, who lost his vision at 33, at times it can be freeing and beautiful. For dancer Kayla Hamilton, who has had varying levels of vision loss since childhood, it can be terrifying and disheartening. For writer Ryan Knighton, who has spent over a decade without his vision, it can become a normal part of life.
For all of them, although they may engage in their respective art forms differently, one thing stays the same–their craft remains a vehicle for them to share their creative vision with the world. As John Dugdale explained while describing how he can direct a photograph based almost entirely on memory and verbal cues, “That is the mystery of all this–is that it’s all inside of your body.”
Evans’ own story grew to be a central aspect of the film’s storyline while he was making critical decisions about the film’s direction during the editing process. “At one point, Hannah Buck, the editor that I worked with, just did a lot of experimentation with the structure,” said Evans, “And I remember one specific time she said, ‘Rodney, this could be one of those films that’s chaptered, and every chapter is really interesting and it’s just fragmented, and it’s got these different episodes, and I think that would be a pretty good movie. Or it could be a movie where you are the throughline. You’re the thread that ties everything together. You’re in conversation with all of these artists. We are learning as an audience what you are absorbing from each of these artists. We are seeing you transform through the process of the film. And that would be a great film. So, I think you have to decide what you want to do. Is this going to be a good film or a great film?’”
Although he didn’t intend to when he first began creating Vision Portraits, the film’s focus evolved from how blindness affects the work of others to the role vision plays in Evan’s own filmmaking career. Through a combination of clips from his previous work, personal interviews, and candid footage, Evans portrays a man of resilience, but also expresses many fears about his future. How will his colleagues react when they understand the extent of his vision loss? What will his life be like if he goes completely blind? And how will he find love in such an unforgiving and selfish world?
If there was anything missing from the film, it was the answers to those questions–not just for Rodney, but for the other subjects as well. After being taken through such an emotional journey and connecting with such personal stories, by the end of the film, viewers are left wondering “What’s next?” Although at a couple moments during the film, Evans alluded to being on the search for those answers himself, it begs the question of whether the process of creating the film brought him any closer or further from finding what he was looking for.