From Film Quarterly Dossier: The New Disability Media, Winter 2022
By Arseli Dokumaci
Vision Portraits (2019) is the most recent documentary feature by award-winning filmmaker Rodney Evans, whose previous works include Brother to Brother (2004), which won the Special Jury Prize in Drama at the Sundance Film Festival and received multiple Independent Spirit Award nominations. Evans received the Frameline Award for LGTBQ+ representation in 2019 and was awarded one of the Disability Future Fellowships by the Ford and Mellon Foundations in 2020. In his films and videos, Evans has long been dealing with issues of marginalization based on race, sexuality, and class. In Vision Portraits, he goes on to explore how disability is entangled in this intersectional web.
Vision Portraits follows the stories of four artists who are either born sighted or, like choreographer and dancer Kayla Hamilton, partially sighted, as they negotiate their way out of sightedness into blindness. There is no sudden exit and entry between the two worlds, however, regardless of how suddenly you may lose your sight. You cannot “whoosh” your way out of one and enter the other. Rather, becoming blind, Vision Portraits tells its audience, is a process, a negotiation—one that is far from being linear, straightforward, or intuitive, and one that can, in some cases, be excruciatingly slow. In fact, this is one of the many strengths of the documentary: the way it depicts becoming blind as a process in all its complexity, multiplicity, and differential durationality, all of which are matched with visuals that correspond to these multiplicities, ambiguities, and uncertainties.
Depending on where they are in their process, each artist in Vision Portraits has their own story of becoming or having become blind. By “becoming blind,” I do not mean how artists may have become biologically blind (though those stories are shared too) but rather how they are becoming or have become blind in an existential and phenomenological sense. I think of “becoming blind” in relation to what critical disability and race studies scholar Nirmala Erevelles calls “disability as becoming,” a process by which “impairment is no longer merely a biological fact, but is, instead, a manner of becoming-in-the-world that reorganizes lived space and time as well as the social relations between the self and other bodies.” 1
Correspondingly, “becoming blind” denotes the process of figuring one’s way out—literally and metaphorically—in a world dominated by sightedness. It references a process of carving out a place of livability and eventually (against all odds) “dwelling,” to use Eliza Chandler’s term, in blindness. 2 As photographer John Dugdale—one of the four artists portrayed in the film—puts it after having lived in blindness for thirty-five years: “It’s fun to live in this bliss.” It is then that Evans, not only the film’s director but also one of the artists portrayed, intervenes to ask: How do you arrive at that point where you can call blindness living in bliss?
From Dealing with to Dwelling in Blindness
In the film, Evans mentions twice that it was his “own fears about being able to continue as a [blind] filmmaker” that drove him to make Vision Portraits. What scares him most, he says, is what he turns into a film. Crucially, however, Evans does not make just any film about blindness; rather, he makes a film that documents the stories of four artists who themselves have also sought to deal with their blindness through their art. Put differently, it is not only Evans but also dancer Kayla Hamilton, writer Ryan Knighton, and photographer John Dugdale who turn to, and resort to, their own artistic medium in order to figure their way into becoming blind. Their stories are depicted visually through Evans’s thoughtful stylistic choices about which images he incorporates (actual shots, collages of old footage, footage from Evans’s previous films, medical imagery, and the like), at times using distortions, filters, and other image modifications such as blurs and pixelizations, to render a sense of the visual experiences of each of his characters as their vision deteriorates. 3
When he became blind, Dugdale recalls, he “was starting to feel invisible.” Because he couldn’t see people, he felt they couldn’t see him either, he explains, while on-screen photos of his in which ghostly figures appear provide a powerful visual expression of his words. “And I used these [pictures],” Dugdale continues, “to heal myself. Proving to myself that I could still function in a way that was not expected of a blind person.” In fact, after the stroke that marks his entry into blindness, he continues to take pictures with fierce creativity, and, as with many other disabled people, he creates all sorts of ingenious affordances along the way, such as using chopsticks to measure distance from the camera. His studio, where he and his assistants work in concert to orchestrate his photographic vision, becomes a vivid illustration of what disability justice activist Mia Mingus calls “access intimacy.” 4
Through his team and their collectively improvised affordances, Evans shows how Dugdale becomes a remarkable blind photographer against all odds. In a way, Dugdale’s tender and beautiful photos look back at a world privileging sightedness—to echo feminist disability scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on staring. 5 Dugdale offers a thought-provoking, indeed visionary, explanation of his work, as if he were saying: “There are many ways of seeing, and not all of them are done with eyes. Here, these photos are how I see you without using my eyes.”
Revisiting the time when she temporarily lost most of her vision, Kayla Hamilton recalls how she came to understand that “there was some healing to be done through this process.” She then asked herself, “How can I use my art form as a way of sharing what it is that I’m experiencing?” This inner reflection eventually led to the creation of her piece Nearly Sighted, a dance performance into which she explicitly and deliberately integrates blindness as an aesthetic element. Similar to the way Dugdale, through his photos, “stares back” at the world that denies his capability to see, Hamilton, in dancing with her eyes closed, rebuffs the sanctions of the same ableist world that expects the dancers onstage to be in time and in sync with one another. “What—who is that for?” she poignantly asks. “Who am I pretending for?” In Nearly Sighted, the ones pretending are the dancers—all Black female choreographers—and the audience members who choose to wear brightly colored eye patches, each painted with different shiny colors, covering their left eyes, thus experiencing Hamilton’s work as she created it.
Ryan Knighton, too, violates the temptation to pass that is imposed by able-bodiedness. Having burdened himself with the taxing work of trying to continually fit in by passing as sighted, Knighton at some point realizes the futility of his efforts, explaining: “Blindness is not something I should avoid [but] … something I should look from.” At that point, blindness materializes as a viewpoint in its own right, rooted in the authority of his personal, experiential knowledge. Knighton begins to write about his experiences as a blind person—a turning point in his life that results in the publication of his memoir, Cockeyed: A Memoir of Blindness. In Knighton’s autobiographical writings and performances, it is not the ableist world but Knighton himself who controls the narrative and sets the terms of the encounter. With this shift in power, what once was threating and frightening now becomes the stuff of humor—as if “the world couldn’t hurt me when I was narrating it.”
The power of engaging in disability artistry is a recurring theme throughout all the portraits that shape this documentary’s narrative. Creating work as blind artists enables them to heal the wounds created by living in a world dominated by sightedness. It gives them back what they once thought they might have lost—their visibility or sense of themselves—allowing them to regain and reassert their agency.
But what about the case of Evans? In Vision Portraits, these artists’ negotiations of blindness through their art are witnessed by Evans as he undertakes his own journey through similar territory. The meta-narrative of the film—the filmmaker trying to figure things out through filmmaking—shapes each portrait as audiences witness each artist trying to figure things out through art making. If art can be a process of dealing with, healing through, and eventually dwelling in blindness, then making Vision Portraits becomes Evans’s way of doing so for himself (just as performing Nearly Sighted was for Hamilton, writing Cockeyed was for Knighton, and portrait photography was for Dugdale).
In fact, drawing an analogy to coming-of-age films, Vision Portraits can be thought of as a coming-of-blindness film. The protagonists of coming-of-age films drift away from their childhood, the place they were once settled in, toward adulthood, a place to which they do not yet (fully) belong; and the plot follows them as they try to figure their way out through a storm of emotions and encounters. In a similar manner, Vision Portraits follows Evans through his coming-of-blindness story as he departs from a world of sightedness, meandering in the literal and metaphorical shadows as he seeks to come to terms with his declining vision. In one scene, someone (the camera) is walking in a dark forest, passing through bushes and branches, with the sounds of birds and insects, and with animals howling in the distance. Vision Portraits, then, is also its creator’s own rite of passage into blindness.
Becoming Disabled as a Rite of Passage
Originating in anthropology, the term “rite of passage” refers to ceremonies that mark and mediate an individual’s transition from one social status to another. According to Arnold van Gennep’s classic formulation, these rites involve three stages: separation (in which an individual is disconnected from an existing order), transition or liminality (a zone of uncertainty and unknowns), and incorporation (where the individual is finally reintegrated to society). 6 It is no surprise that on the film’s soundtrack Evans refers to his situation as a “liminal space”:
I don’t want to be in this liminal space. For me, it’s a place that’s completely scary and frightening. It is enraging. I think—I think of it as, uh … a restriction on—on my freedom. I wish that I could have the freedom that I had before I was diagnosed. You know, it’s hard to imagine that freedom might lie in the other direction: total blindness.
Whereas Evans considers himself in a place of liminality that feels like a constraint on the freedom that he used to have preblindness, Dugdale talks of blindness itself as a kind of freedom. He recalls how his friend Octavio, whom he describes as “a happy fully blind person,” assured him that he would become free the day he lost the little bit of sight he had left. In turn, Dugdale now assures Evans that freedom can indeed lie “in the other direction”—visually signified by the train that is passing through a tunnel in Knighton’s vignettes.
This is precisely what Evans yearns for. At the beginning of the documentary, he says: “I’m just looking for guidance in how to be a blind artist.” And it is the wisdom and expertise of the three other artists, who are at different stages in their rites of passage into blindness, that guide him in the process. Just as at one point in the documentary a sighted pedestrian offers her elbow to Knighton to guide him along a path, all three offer their elbows to Evans in his passage into becoming a blind artist, and gently point to the potential paths to take. In Evans’s case, the guides are the blind people themselves, who hold the embodied knowledge of how to dwell in blindness and can thus guide the newcomer through his “rites of passage.” They are the ones to provide the wisdom, rites, and initiations into a new way of being in the world.
By absorbing the experiences of the three artists, Evans as filmmaker gradually grows into blindness—a process akin to how the protagonist of a coming-of-age film grows into adulthood. As such, what was “hard to imagine” at the beginning of the film becomes a possibility toward its end, when Evans says, looking at the cloudless Berlin sky, where birds are flying in the distance: “I’m feeling kind of strangely serene about it. I feel like I’m able to function in a way that, you know, that I feel pretty happy and pretty … sustained … in what I’m doing.”
But arriving at that point of happiness is not at all smooth, instinctive, or frictionless. The characters in Vision Portraits remind the audience that although living a happy life as a blind artist is possible, no one get there without struggle. There are things to figure out in coming to grips with “crip time.”
Reckoning with Loss
In disability cultures and scholarship, the different temporal realities of dwelling in the world as a disabled person are often described as “crip time.” Ranging from the time it takes for a person in a wheelchair to go from point A to point B to the pace of uttering a word when stuttering, crip time refers to how time can differentially expand, contract, or accelerate, depending on the particularities of one’s impairment and on the ableist environments in which those impairments are lived.
Since its emergence, the concept has been mobilized to disrupt normative notions of time with an activist blow, and to give a name to, claim, and embrace the time of disability. Recently, however, some scholars have pointed out that not all aspects of crip time lend themselves to celebration. Crip time, according to Ellen Samuels, is “grief time,” a “time of loss,” a process through which, with “each new impairment, I grieve again for the lost time, the lost years that are now not yet to come.” 7 Thinking of loss in relation to her future, Alison Kafer candidly writes, “I am not interested in becoming more disabled than I already am.” 8 Echoing Kafer and Samuels, Emma Sheppard asserts that crip time “must include … time to be unsure, ambivalent about disability, and time to mourn future possibilities that can no longer be.” 9
These assertions of the complexity of crip time are part of a broader turn in disability studies to a reckoning with issues of loss, pain, sadness, ambivalences, and other unpleasant feelings—all issues that the field, for understandable reasons of pride and empowerment, has frequently pushed to its margins. Vision Portraits is a powerful response to this call, addressing something that scholars like Samuels, Sheppard, and Kafer yearn to see receive more attention. It compellingly articulates the complexities of disability, such as recognition of loss, the mercurial effects and turbulence of emotions that this loss might stir up, the wish to not lose more capacity, and the volatility and unpredictability of crip time—in this case, a passage into blindness.
Rodney Evans is able to portray such passages not only because each artist happens to be at a different point in their rites of passage into blindness but also because of the brilliant way in which he brings together their stories in a narrative and visual fashion that prevents a romanticization of the process. Knighton, for example, considers his turn to autobiographical accounts of his blindness as his path into becoming a writer. “I swear,” he says, “that’s the moment I became a writer.” By contrast, Evans shares his fears that blindness might be his way out of being a filmmaker. “There’s an added sense of urgency to making films now,” he says, before he loses more of his sight—a sensibility that is visually signified by a montage of fast-moving street lights and film clips. A progressive disease, with more deterioration and loss on the way, makes the clock tick faster for a blind filmmaker. In his case, crip time is accelerating.
For Knighton, however, there seems to be no clock ticking at all. After having gone through his own rite of passage, he is finally dwelling in blindness—or, in his own words, “settling in [his] skin in a way [he] hadn’t before.” Crip time seems to feel expanded for Knighton: he can write more and more.
While Dugdale unhesitatingly says that he does not want to get his sight back, Evans flies across the Atlantic to receive an alternative experimental medical intervention with only a slight chance of giving him (some) portion of his sight back. Dugdale considers his experiences as a blind person “fun,” “rich,” and “moving.” In a cheerful tone, describing the effects of his blindness, he says: “I’m so happy that I stayed on the planet to experience them.” Hamilton, on the other hand, recalls in tears the time when she nearly lost all her sight. “That was the longest, like, three, four months of my life,” she says. “I was so depressed, I had [sighs] you know [sniffles] … I was really ready to kill myself.”
Importantly, as Vision Portraits goes on to demonstrate, passage into blindness never happens in isolation from other marginalized embodiments and social positions. “I’m already within … one of the most racist, homophobic [laughs] industries [laughing] that exist,” Rodney Evans says, sharing his hesitation to add blindness to an already precarious intersectional reality. In other words, the already accelerated clock of crip time might be ticking at an even faster rate for a Black, gay blind filmmaker than it would for an unmarked blind filmmaker.
Alison Kafer is again helpful here: “I realize that [my] position [of not wanting to become more disabled] is itself marked by an ableist failure of imagination, but I can’t deny holding it.” 10 Evans did not want to become more blind, and Hamilton thought of killing herself upon losing her sight; but these reactions do not mean that they lack the realization or political awareness that Kafer advances. (Vision Portraits and Nearly Sighted provide proof to the contrary.) Rather, the two positions are not mutually exclusive. “We need time to be sad, to be frustrated,” Sheppard writes, “even as we acknowledge that the reason for our sadness and frustration are ableist structures, norms, and expectations.” 11
Tears and sadness, being angry at becoming blind, being depressed, even having suicidal thoughts about remaining blind—all are just as much a part of the process of becoming blind as are dwelling in serenity, thriving, and finding an aesthetic resource in blindness. Mourning what one has lost, fearing that what remains will also be lost, seeking and desiring cures—all belong to the process of becoming blind. They, too, are stories of disability. Exactly because Vision Portraits holds space for these rather uncomfortable, harder-to-embrace aspects of disability, it is squarely situated within disability justice politics. Because difficult aspects, situations, and positions exist and persist, it is crucial to have more documentaries like Vision Portraits, more performances like Nearly Sighted, more experiential life stories of blindness, and more disability imaginaries that can help to offer alternatives to hegemonic ableist narratives that counter the “inability to imagine disabled lives” as lives worth living. 12
Unlike traditional rites of passage (such as graduations, weddings, funerals), which are already scripted and rehearsed countless times and reiterated, there are no scripts, no guides, and no customs for how to come to live with and dwell in disability. In the absence of such narrative traditions, newcomers to disability can hope to learn from already disabled peers who take the time and energy to provide guidance, to walk/wheel them through, and, yes, to write scripts and fashion documentaries for their rites of passage into disability. Thanks are owed to Hamilton, Knighton, and Dugdale for doing just that.
An Aesthetics of Access in Vision Portraits
One of the significant stylistic interventions that Evans brings to Vision Portraits is his incorporation of audio description (AD)—an additional audio track that narrates the visual elements of a scene for the benefit of blind audiences—as an aesthetic element in and of itself. As many in disability arts have argued, access can be a creative methodology, and audio description (as a type of access) can be a form of art, poetry, and a critical intervention into the medium of film itself. 13 In line with this tradition, Vision Portraits refrains from the standardized approaches of the industry, which often treats AD as a form of code compliance, reducing it to a mere add-on. Instead, the film explores what possibilities AD may open up in terms of storytelling and access, in three particular ways.
First, not all image sequences are audio-described. In fact, when Knighton is narrating his visit to the Sweetwater, Texas, rattlesnake round-up, AD is not heard for almost five minutes, allowing the audience to hear the dialogue and ambient noise of this event even though there are many intermittent images (such as the rodeo, snakes, or people walking in the desert). Similarly, some of Dugdale’s photos are described, while others are not. Of course, these choices have to do with technical limits. Whenever speech dominates a scene, as often is the case with Knighton and Dugdale, there is less space left for standardized AD. Although alternative methods exist to circumvent this limit by using AD as anticipatory by describing images before their actual appearance, or as interventionist by freeze-framing, Vision Portraits does not resort to these devices. 14 Instead, Evans makes choices as a filmmaker, taking into account the various elements he has to balance and the overall aesthetic of the film. Description is inherently political because people make choices about what and how to describe or not to describe. Rather than assuming that AD is a value-free, neutral, and objective access add-on, Evans takes up AD as an aesthetic element and treats it as an inherently subjective process shaped by choices through and through.
Second, whatever details Evans omits on the AD track constitute a deliberate aesthetic choice, not a shortcoming. As Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan point out in their publication Alt-Text as Poetry Workbook, alt-text (in this case, AD) is not only about what is lost but also about what is gained: “[T]he act of describing,” they write, “also adds information.” 15 In several scenes of the audio-described Vision Portraits, the AD calls attention to details that would not be noticed without the AD track, such as the barely visible reflection between two subway cars—a description that followed Evans’s account of his doctor telling him how he would gradually lose his sight. Such stylistic choices heighten the effect of the brilliant visual representations of what is being narrated. Thanks to the AD, for instance, I realized that Evans was watching Hamilton’s dance performance “with his knuckles against his lips,” suggesting admiration and deep contemplation, and that he puffed his warm breath into the cold air as he got off the plane in Germany to seek an experimental treatment, revealing the sensory elements of a crisp chill. The AD, in fact, makes Vision Portraits into another film entirely. With its aesthetic choices guiding the viewer/listener to see the film in other ways than they initially experienced, AD took on a “pedagogical” function, as Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin argue, affording access not only to blind but also to sighted audiences. 16
Third, the pacing of the AD throughout the film has a particular aesthetic quality. In the sections where music accompanies the sequences (such as when Dugdale’s photos are displayed one after the other with piano music playing in the background or when Hamilton is dancing on the stage with swift moves), the obviously well-trained describer accelerates her speech rate in ways that satisfyingly match the editing pace. These rapid sequences function almost as minifilms within the film; when they are followed by slower-paced AD, that AD takes on a particular temporal aesthetic that makes it pleasurable for anyone to listen to without too much distraction.
Closed captioning (CC) for Deaf or deafblind audiences, however, still has room for improvement. Whenever music was playing, only a music icon was used, except for a few scenes where the sensibility of the music was described. As Deaf sound and visual artist Christine Sun Kim notes, just an icon or the word “music” does not tell “anything about what that sound is made of. How it moves. Its personality.” 17 For example, when Knighton is telling his story about becoming blind, the use of an eerie bass track in the background is very much part of the scene’s aesthetics, as are the gentle piano tones accompanying Dugdale’s tender and erotic photos of naked bodies, but neither of these are described.
Nonetheless, Rodney Evans has created an exemplary documentary, telling extraordinary stories about “becoming blind” while also taking the aesthetics of access seriously in ways that will hopefully inspire other disabled and nondisabled filmmakers in their future work. Thank you, Rodney Evans, for gifting the world with this hard-won wisdom and artistry.
- Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Enabling a Transformative Body Politic (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 36.
- Eliza Chandler, “Disability and the Desire for Community” (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2014). Chandler writes of “the desire to dwell with disability,” which she considers to be a desire that “is antagonistic to the normative desire to cure or kill disability” (4). According to Chandler, it is “the “shared understanding” or communal investment in” this desire that leads to the creation of crip communities (38).
- Christopher Reed, “A Conversation with Rodney Evans (VISION PORTRAITS),” Hammer to Nail, March 6, 2019, http://www.hammertonail.com/shorts-contest/rodney-evans-interview/.
- Mia Mingus, “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link,” May 5, 2011, Leaving Evidence (blog), leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/05/05/access-intimacy-the-missing-link/.
- Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Staring: How We Look (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (London and New York: Routledge, 1960).
- Ellen Samuels, “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Disability Studies Quarterly 37, no. 3 (2017).
- Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 4.
- Emma Sheppard, “Performing Normal but Becoming Crip: Living with Chronic Pain,” Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research 22, no. 1 (2020): 45.
- Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 4.
- Sheppard, “Performing Normal,” 45.
- Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, 45.
- See Amanda Cachia, “‘Disabling’ the Museum: Curator as Infrastructural Activist,” Journal of Visual Art Practice 12, no. 3 (2013): 257–89; Bojana Coklyat and Shannon Finnegan, Alt-Text as Poetry Workbook, https://alt-text-as-poetry.net/; and Arseli Dokumaci, “Disability as Method: Interventions in the Habitus of Ableism through Media-Creation,” Disability Studies Quarterly 38, no. 3 (2018).
- Dokumaci, “Disability as Method.”
- Coklyat and Finnegan, Alt-Text as Poetry Workbook.
- Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin, “Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool,” Disability Studies Quarterly 35, no. 2 (2015).
- Christine Sun Kim, “Artist Christine Sun Kim Rewrites Closed Captions” (2022), YouTube video, 7:46 , https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfe479qL8hg.
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