As a child, I knew two things about myself: I wanted to be a writer, and my bad eyesight would always get in the way of that. At around age four, my grandmother observed me playing with my toys and immediately realized something was wrong. Eventually I received a diagnosis: optic nerve atrophy with nystagmus, little-to-no depth perception, and a narrowed visual field. I was blind in my left eye and nearsighted in my right eye. Stairs would soon become my enemy; I’ve lost count of how many times I have fallen down them in my life. It happens so much that it tends to not even hurt anymore. When I encounter staircases without a railing — which are more common than you would think — I am paralyzed with fear. Horror films rarely scare me, but if you ask me to walk down a staircase with no railing, I may ask you to carry me.
But my troubles extend far beyond stairs. Working with one eye doesn’t really help my career as a film critic. But I keep watching and writing about films because I can’t help it. It’s a compulsion. I love film, even if it tends not to love me back. The portrayals of blindness in cinema are especially ugly, with the condition often depicted with the same weight as a death sentence. I rarely watch a film and see blind people just hanging out, having sex, or going on adventures. And there is only one kind of blindness depicted: no sight in either eye, with the actor wearing dramatic contacts to make them look like glowing orbs full of knowledge and world-weariness. Filmmakers seem to be obsessed with Tiresias, the blind oracle from Oedipus Rex. There is a trend wherein blind characters are considered almost holy — sexless and pure, accepting of all kinds, untouched by the perils of vanity. They are essentially spectators of the human experience, rather than part of it. When I was a half-blind child, this made me feel like there was no way for me to belong. I couldn’t become a higher being, but I couldn’t be normal either. I was expected to live knowing that there is a way I interact with the world that none of my full-sighted friends would ever understand.
Watching Rodney Evans’s Vision Portraits was like a homecoming. Finally, at 27 years old, I had found my people. The cerebral documentary tells the stories of four artists, all with different forms of blindness. At the center is Evans himself, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that occurs when the back wall of the retina is damaged. Evans uses the film to document his attempts to save what remains of his sight while also coming to terms with being a blind artist.
Of the four leads, I found myself identifying most with Kayla Hamilton, a dancer with partial blindness. Her story is very similar to my own. Like me, she found out she had no vision in her left eye when she was young. And like me, her parents forced her to wear a patch over her right eye in an unfortunate attempt to strengthen her other eye. Perhaps most importantly to me, Hamilton is also a Black woman. Hearing her story is perhaps the first time I have ever felt truly represented onscreen. It is a reminder that representation is complicated, and race is only the beginning of the conversation.
Hamilton’s perspective varies wildly from those of the other two artists, photographer John Dugdale and writer Ryan Knighton. Dugdale challenges the idea of vision loss as a loss of color and perspective, suggesting instead that it opens another way of seeing. Before he fully lost his sight, he was told by another blind artist that it would be “freeing,” because he would no longer be clinging to it, nervous about it, and waiting for it to be gone. Similarly, Knighton describes going fully blind as reaching “another side.” The film illustrates this idea with a train going through a tunnel, enveloped in blackness, and then emerging to light.
There’s a sense of poetry, light, and movement in Vision Portraits, a full sensual experience. The film’s visual perspective shifts often, demonstrating for the viewer how each artist sees. No one person is blind in the exact same way. Many people with low vision have small areas of light and color in different corners of the eye. Some see white. Others see colors constantly, creating artwork only they can see. When the film turns to Evans’s perspective, we are thrust into a very different story, as he travels to Europe on his quest to restore his vision. He discusses the ways in which being a Black gay man adds an extra strain to his life as a blind person. Notably, he and Hamilton, both Black, have a more pragmatic understanding of their disability than the white leads. Though Dugdale and Knighton’s optimism is inspiring, Evans does not allow us to forget that disability is not an equalizer. His journey forward will not be easy. But Vision Portraits strongly suggests that his work will be thoughtful and beautiful.
Vision Portraits is available to stream on Kanopy and iTunes, and for free via the Whitney Museum of American Art (with audio description or open captions) through July 25 and World Channel through August 29. On Saturday, July 25, the Whitney will be hosting a Q&A over Zoom with director Rodney Evans, dancer Kayla Hamilton, and disability rights activist Judith Heumann about filmic representations of people with disabilities, moderated by assistant curator Jennie Goldstein. The event will run from 6pm to 7pm.