There’s a key moment early in “Vision Portraits” — Rodney Evans’ new documentary about four visually impaired artists, including himself — when one of his subjects recalls how his family reacted to the news that he had lost almost all of his sight due in part to an HIV-related illness.
Acclaimed Greenwich Village photographer John Dugdale’s family told him they were so proud of his work, assuming he was done with it. To say that resonated with Evans is to put it mildly.
“He was like, ‘Were? Past tense? Oh, hell no,’” explains Evans. “That word just echoed in his head, like, ‘You think I’m going to stop? Did you assume that?’ That becomes something that spurred him on, that makes him want to prove even more they’ve completely underestimated what he’s capable of.”
Dugdale, who first shared his vision problem with his family around 1993, went on to become even more prolific than he was before his affliction, creating ghostly profiles of people. Evans, too, has not let his disability slow him down. He was first diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease, in 1997. His visual field is currently about 20%; he has no peripheral vision and only a fraction of night vision.
Still, he’s persisted. In 2004, Evans won the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for the drama “Brother to Brother,” co-starring a young Anthony Mackie. Based in Brooklyn, he now juggles filmmaking with teaching two to three classes a year at Swarthmore College, outside of Philadelphia.
In “Vision Portraits,” Evans peppers his own story in between sections on his other three subjects: Dugdale, Bronx-based dancer Kayla Hamilton and Canadian writer Ryan Knighton. Each has a different form of impairment. And all of their work, in one way or another, addresses their disabilities and challenges false assumptions.
For instance, Hamilton was born completely blind in one eye and only has partial vision in the other due to glaucoma and iritis. For her 2017 solo dance piece “Nearly Sighted,” she had the audience wear an eye patch.