How vs. Why: Advice from a Blind Filmmaker


LightHouse Interpoint is our new literary supplement, featuring written work by some of the world’s most interesting and engaged individuals who are blind or have low vision. Read our submission guidelines here.

The world of a visual storyteller is a world of promises and challenges: how to find the best shot; how to capture the best shot; how to get back to the studio without accidentally erasing the best shot. And as you can imagine, when people see my white cane, they want to know more than ever about these promises and challenges. Above all, they want to know, how do you do it?

What they don’t immediately understand is that I’ve had the good fortune to see some remarkable sights, from the sun rising over the white sands of a New Mexican desert to the moon over El Capitan. I’ve seen the joy on the face of a marathon runner breaking the tape at the finish line, and the anguish of a parent steering her child through another round of chemotherapy. I’ve been a reporter, a photographer, an editor and a filmmaker my whole life, and I can hardly remember a time where I’ve worked more than a few feet from the lens of a camera.

Michael Schwartz holds a camera

Beyond all the day-to-day challenges and promises of visual storytelling, though, filmmakers all face a more important question, the question of not how but why. I can weave those shots together, but why do it unless the story makes the viewer feel something?

What a viewer feels depends on the type of story, but that fundamental goal is always the same. And a story that can’t make you feel something is just a collection of words without meaning or purpose – a bunch of how’s with no why.

As of late, my work as a visual storyteller ­– specifically, a legally blind filmmaker – involves an additional challenge, and it includes an additional promise. That’s because although I’ve had a lifetime of seeing some remarkable sights. carrying a cane along with the camera now means a large part of what I shoot and what I direct happens with very little physical eye-sight. My challenge and promise as a visually impaired filmmaker requires me to say that my stories have to stand for something. They stand for changing perceptions, for raising expectations, for making a difference. Last week I screened the first episode of my new series, The Palette Project, which aims to do exactly that.

On the day I traded my driver’s license for a bus pass – the middle phase, as it turns out, of a degenerative eye disease that will likely leave me completely blind – I didn’t know anything about blind climbers, blind sailors, blind bicyclists, and of course not blind filmmakers. I certainly didn’t know that the unemployment rate for working age men and women who are visually impaired – men and women who can and want to work – hovers from sixty to seventy percent. At the time, merging the worlds of visual impairment and visual storytelling seemed like a surefire of becoming part of that statistic. But more than ten years later, while I have traded in that driver’s license for the bus pass, I have not traded in the camera for the cane.

The camera and the cane. How exactly does that work?

If you’re looking for a how-to guide, we’re going to need a bigger blog (link). The how of course is complex. I use the acoustic and spatial dimensions of a set or an environment to get my bearings with a camera that I know even better than my own eyes. I shoot twice as many shots at four times the resolution in order to have the digital canvas and choices I need in post-production. I don’t consider color as much as color temperature when working with waveform monitors and vectorscopes. Most importantly, I work with a team of dedicated professionals to make sure that our creative vision as a team is consistent when even the above tools fail me. Like I said, that’s the how, and it tells you almost nothing about why I get up every morning to do what I do. If all that comes across is a post in which you experience the novelty of reading about the only visually impaired filmmaker you’re ever likely to know, I haven’t done much. I haven’t talked to you about the why of what I do.

To get a little closer to that elusive why, I present a set of principles I’ve learned over the course of more than twenty years of visual storytelling. I’m happy to report these are principles you can use in your own life today. They apply to both photography and a mindful life. If you pick up some visual storytelling tips, I’m happy to help. If you find some life lessons, even better.

Photo Tip no. 1: Action/Reaction

Whenever I’m shooting a scene, I’m always looking for where the action is. That action may be obvious and intense, or it may be small and subtle, but it’s always there. That action, though, is always followed by a reaction, and that’s my next shot. The reaction itself becomes the new action, and it takes me to the next reaction. It’s an endless chain, and if I want to follow a new storyline, all I have to do is find the new action.

What it means to me: if you don’t like the direction of your life, look for a new action. That action may be intense and obvious, or it may be small and subtle. Does it involve job training or re-training? Does it involve the way we interact with our best friends or family? It doesn’t matter, and it depends on an individual’s circumstance, but it’s always there. Changing the pattern of your life starts with finding the action, and following it through its chain of reactions. It works every time

Photo Tip no. 2: Wide/medium/tight

Any photographer worth their salt will tell you the best first shot is almost never the medium shot. The tight shot? That’s where the good stuff. Is. And the tight shot is such a powerful complement to the wide shot, the big picture. Shooting those extremes helps inform the eventual medium shot. The story may be in the medium shot, bit it needs the wide and tight shots to make sense.

What it means to me: Sweat the small stuff, and think big. We must constantly look for the details and intricacies in life, the little things that can get in our way. Isn’t this something anyone who has ever carried a cane knows on an instinctive level? It’s the small details that can trip us up, and rooting out those details – the seam in the sidewalk or the whistle of the wind – they make our world manageable. But we need to keep the big picture in mind, the world around us in all its spatial.. Bigness. This is nnot just a blindness issue. Understanding the details and understanding the big picture makes the medium shot of our lives that much more meaningful.

Photo Tip no. 3: Take the camera where the eye doesn’t go.

I love my camera. I love putting it in strange places, shooting from different angles, trying a shot that seems crazy, but just might work. It’s the spice in my storytelling.

What it means to me: break boundaries. We must strive to look at life from a different perspective. We must seek out the perspectives of people we’ve never met and may not agree with. We must constantly attempt to try something new and unconventional. Train fora job you think you can’t do. Hire a person you think can’t do that job. I promise you that when it comes to boundaries, there aren’t any. Any obstacle you can think of? The blind man, woman or child has already thought of a way over, around or through it.

In my work, I aim to shine a light on the accomplishments and achievements of visually impaired men, women and children around the world. However, what the stories hopefully get across is that we are not wondrous simply because of how we get stuff done. The fact of the matter is, the stories of blind climbers, blind sailors and blind filmmakers are less amazing and less inspiring every day, because there are so many of us.

The Palette Project features the stories of people who treat blindness as an inconvenience rather than an obstacle, and who are following their calling to live in a world without boundaries. It’s why the how of what I do is by far the silver medal to the why of what I do. There are too many stories out there to tell and my list is a long one, so when people question my status as a visually impaired photographer, I always respond, why not?


Michael Schwartz is the CEO of Trailhead Productions and lives in San Francisco, Calif. Read more about The Palette Project and support the series here.

2 thoughts on “How vs. Why: Advice from a Blind Filmmaker”

  1. Thank you from all people experiencing glaucoma. Your words are inspirational.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Schwartz, for your keen inner eye and magnanimous gift of storytelling at a time when I am lost for directions. I am a forty-five-year old school interpreter who is unsure of her work. My path is still unclear, but your courageous work and words will empower me to tread towards that light in the horizon.

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