Essays

My Blade Runner Eyes

Photographer Nadya Lev was the toast of the fashion world, but it was only when she started going blind that she really learned how to shoot.

When I was 21, I shot my first magazine cover. It was for the 50th anniversary of Skin Two, a magazine of sex and fashion. The theme of the issue was “medical fetish.” At the time, the notion of having a chronic health issue was so foreign to me that it was easy to find exotic beauty in the trappings of sickness. My model wore a latex posture corset meant to evoke Victorian medical braces. Her arms were wrapped in long rubber gloves. Surgical scissors and Wartenberg wheels decorated her hair, which was coiled up in medical tubing.

That year, I became a well-known photographer within a few  niche subcultures. I shot nine more covers, for magazines with names like Elegy and Fiend. The models who had inspired me to begin taking photos flew to my city to work with me. I found myself on the lifetime guest list for every overseas party I grew up dreaming of one day attending. Over time, thanks in no small part to my gifted collaborators, my work entered the mainstream. Italian Vogue, MTV, VH1, Elle, Marie Claire, New York Magazine, and Harper’s Bazaar published my work in features on underground fashion.

Then, I had 15 eye surgeries. I went partially blind, and learned to navigate my world through a maze of hallucination-like visual distortions. And that’s when my photography truly reached the next level.

I had 15 eye surgeries. I went partially blind… And that’s when my photography truly reached the next level.

It all began with a LASIK surgery gone wrong. After a perfectly normal initial procedure, I had a complication called “corneal melt.” Just like people have a dominant hand, they also have a dominant eye. And my dominant eye’s cornea had gotten abnormally scarred as it healed from LASIK. The surface of the cornea took on the curvature of a funhouse mirror, and everything refracted though it began look askew. I now look back fondly on this (at the time devastating) period as an innocent time when most of my vision was still intact, because it was only a year later that shit got real. At 28, according to doctors at UCSD, I became the second-youngest person in medical literature to be diagnosed with genetically-inherited PXF glaucoma: a particularly aggressive type of eye disease that normally affects people over 65.

Glaucoma is a disease in which pressure builds up inside the eye, causing progressive and irreversible damage to the optic nerves. When the optic nerves become damaged, vision begins to decrease – first peripherally, then at the center. Glaucoma can’t be cured, but it can be controlled through medication and surgery. Many people don’t know that they have it until a large portion of their vision is lost, because the brain is creative at filling in the blanks when it encounters blind spots. By the time I realized I had a problem, I was almost completely blind in my dominant eye.

Everyone always wonders if the LASIK complication had anything to do with the glaucoma, and the answer from all my doctors was always “no”. I just happened to win two statistically improbable eye fail jackpots in a row. One in 112,500 people require disability leave from LASIK complications, and the number of people who spontaneously develop PXF glaucoma at my age per decade really is 1 in 7.5 billion.

I just happened to win two statistically improbable eye fail jackpots in a row.

What followed was a series of surgeries, surgery complications, and surgeries to fix complications. Most of these surgeries were different from one another, with esoteric names like trabeculectomy, intraocular lens implantation, and topography-guided PRK. Although each  surgery felt different, they all had one thing in common: a surreal alien abduction vibe. The surgeries would work for a little while, then fail after a few months. Meanwhile, the complications were accumulating. Following several failed glaucoma interventions, one doctor advised me to start shopping for a seeing-eye dog. Another suggested that I start learning Braille.

The situation reached a critical point while I was in Canada. I was right about to get a corneal surgery – state-of-the-art, but not yet FDA-approved – to fix the LASIK damage. Right before that surgery, my glaucoma spun out of control, more aggressively than ever before.

In most alternate-world timelines, I believe that this is when I went blind. But in this timeline, something lucky happened. I got introduced to a world-renowned ophthalmologist – Dr. Robert Weinreb, who is basically the Sherlock Holmes of ophthalmology. He has a medical degree from Harvard and an electrical engineering degree from MIT (both of which, I’m pretty sure, he earned simultaneously), he never sleeps, and every single ophthalmologist I’ve ever met knows his name. When he’s not busy conducting stem cell research to reverse blindness or running an entire eye institute, he somehow has time to operate on patients. And so it was that I appeared on his radar – via my scientist uncle, who’d done research with him at UCSD.

I flew straight from Montreal to San Diego for an emergency surgery on Christmas morning. The surgery worked for a couple of months… and then, like the others, it failed. It was a scary moment, but we we were not ready to give up. Dr. Weinreb did two more surgeries, taking a different approach than before. Unlike all previous attempts, these surgeries succeeded.

“Succeed” in this case means that the surgeries stopped the progression of the disease. I can’t currently get back the vision I’ve lost, but for the time being – no one knows how long, but it could be the rest of my life, or another year   – I don’t have to worry about losing additional eyesight. The glaucoma is under control.

When the dust settled, it was time to learn to live with a set of visual impairments that come from different parts of the eye being busted. My optic nerves, retinas, cornea, and lenses are all worse for the wear, and the different types of damage all result in different types of visual aberrations. Rather than considering it a loss, to me it’s a chance to find inspiration in a series of lush hallucinatory visions that make my world feel more mysterious, layered and dazzling than it was before.

It’s always snowing indoors now. The “snow” is actually visual noise, the result of damaged optic nerves…

For example, it’s always snowing indoors now. The “snow” is actually visual noise, the result of damaged optic nerves, kind of like a television tuned to a channel that the antenna can’t quite capture. I’ll be sitting across the table having a conversation with someone, and there’ll be a blizzard tearing the air apart everywhere around us. It’s as if all houses are inhabited by ghosts – not ghosts of people, but of strange weather phenomena, Fortean poltergeists that vary in intensity based on the color of the walls and the quality of light.

And when I look up at the sky, I see not one moon, but 8 or 9, with smudges and smears of light all around them. It makes me feel like I’m an explorer on another planet, looking up at the sky to see unfamiliar celestial bodies, making wishes on each one that I see. It’s better now that my cornea is mostly fixed, but there’s still a beautiful layer of light leaks, a feeling like all lights are wrapped in tinsel, a real-time lens whacking effect applied to everything I see.  

And of course, there was the most terrifying of glaucoma symptoms, the rainbows that appear when pressure is dangerously high around every light source, every street light, every lamp, every phone screen, blooming like flowers, savage colorful beacons transmitting the signal of “get help now, or you will lose all these colors forever.”

It took me a long time to find beauty in the visual distortions, and it took me even longer to find beauty in how the surgeries transformed my outward appearance. Every time I looked in the mirror, I saw all this evidence of every surgery that ever happened. I was always told that my eyes were my most beautiful feature, and now they reminded me of pain and loss. But after a time, I began to see beauty in that, too. My new artificial lens implants, , swapped in to fix the cataracts, reflect light differently, so that there’s always an extra sparkle inside my eyes. When I blink, you can catch them flickering like tiny cybernetic enhancements. “I can’t stop looking at your Blade Runner eyes,” someone told me once. I like being half-replicant.

“I can’t stop looking at your Blade Runner eyes,” someone told me once. I like being half-replicant.

It’s not always magical and amazing. After losing depth perception, all staircases forever look like slides. And I’ve lost the ability to read paper books, because even with reading glasses, the text is just too small. I’m a weird person to take to bookstores, because now, my way of experiencing books is open them, sniff deeply and inhale the pages. Whereas before it was just a vaguely-defined paper book smell, I can break it down into so many different components now: the musty paper, the scent of fresh ink, the leather cover, the glue used for binding. So, when the door of one sense closed, another opened.

For a long while after the surgeries, I was afraid to take new photos. I didn’t want to publish new work that was not on par with my old work, because I was afraid of how that would feel. My friends and family wouldn’t stand for it. A photographer friend gave me a lesson in lighting. My parents bought me a studio light and some modifiers when I was broke. My extended community surprised me first by chipping in for a new camera. Friends began to model for me with no expectations of results.

At first, my photos were terrible. I couldn’t even tell if they were in focus or not. Gradually, I began to work around my limitations. Or, more precisely: my limitations led to new breakthroughs.

A lack of control around my eyes’ function led to an obsessive, disciplined quest to master lighting. In studio photography, “shaping light” means bouncing, diffusing, tinting or directing light in specific and predictable ways using light modifiers. If I couldn’t make my retina or optic nerves transmit data as faithfully to my visual cortex as before, at least I could learn to carefully direct a strobe of light along a path, at just the right intensity, at just the right degrees, to illuminate something in an exact and perfect way.

I took care to compose carefully, rather than saying “I’ll crop it later.” I learned to achieve the desired shot in-camera as much as possible, rather than saying “I’ll fix it in post.” With the help of my incredibly talented retouching partner Marina Dean-Francis, I was able to explore new dimensions in color, mood and polish during the editing step.

I stopped relying on hair, makeup and wardrobe as heavily to carry the impact of the portrait, and focused more on the story of the person in front of me. I broadened my focus from portraying young women looking invincible to people from all walks of life, and all levels of vulnerability. I let the fragmented feeling of my visual impairment come through in my work, experimenting with glitch processes such as corrupting the image file to produce jagged, colorful artifacts throughout the image.

What I discovered is that seeing people… is less about how well I physically perceive them, and more about the ideas that our time together inspires.

What I discovered is that seeing people – truly seeing and celebrating them through my work – is less about how well I physically perceive them, and more about the images and ideas that our time together inspires. It doesn’t matter if I see in 240p rather than HD. This realization, combined with my newfound command of the tools, has helped me to create some of my strongest work to date. I know I’ll always have some tools for telling the stories that I want to tell, even if those tools change over time..

In his essay titled “Blindness,” my favorite author, Jorge Luis Borges, who did go blind from glaucoma, writes:

“For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It is an instrument… everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it … those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our life things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.”

He ends his essay with a line from Geothe. Alles nahe werde fern, or: “everything near becomes distant.”Life is a gradual discovery of this fact, with higher and higher stakes as time goes on. I just happened to discover it more viscerally and literally than most people my age. The greatest gift my eye fail has given me is the ability to calmly survey whatever is in front of me and ask myself: “given that my vision is so potentially finite, is this worth looking at?” If so, look at it with all the love you can–this project, that face, this dream. If not, refocus your gaze on something else as gracefully as you can.

Try it for a week. Imagine that you have replicant eyes, with a replicant lifespan. What do you want to see the most? Bring more of it into your line of sight.

Top photo of Nadya Lev courtesy of Star St. Germain.