Zachary Burns didn’t hesitate to take on the project.
When a group asked him to teach a photography class to vision-impaired people, he already had a few ideas of how he could instruct them successfully.
“I immediately agreed,” Burns said. “I found it fascinating. I’m legally blind in my left eye. ... I’ve always had an interest in how all kinds of people see things differently. I’ve explored that with my own photography in the past.”
From that class grew a project that landed an Emmy nomination for Burns and his brother, Jacob Leighton Burns. “Fleeting Light” highlights that class and how both visually impaired and completely blind people became photographers and had their art featured in an exhibit.
The two grew up in Carterville — armed with a VHS tape recorder, the two remade their own versions of their favorite films. While Jacob pursued film production, Zachary studied photography. But the brothers still work together to make movies under their company Planet Thunder Productions.
Zachary said he was approached in 2015 by Newview Oklahoma about teaching the class. The group is a nonprofit that serves blind and vision-impaired people by providing treatments, rehabilitation, solutions and other accommodations. The goal is to empower those patients with meaningful experiences.
Art classes are a big part of that mission, Zachary said. They had tried sculpture and painting but never photography.
It didn’t take long for Zachary to have a lesson plan.
“The idea for the class was to basically just get cameras in the hands of these people and see what they were doing,” he said. “That was the fascinating aspect of that. At the end of the class, we’d get images students made all organized into an art show.”
That show was held in a gallery in Oklahoma City, where the brothers live. In addition to the photos, Zachary took a portrait of each student that replicated their vision — something that represented what they lived with every day.
The idea for making a video happened while brainstorming with Newview officials about what the class could be.
“It was their idea to shoot a video about the whole thing, and I was like, ‘Perfect! I know all the right people,’” he said. “From there, I was able to pull in my brother in from the get-go.”
At first, they thought a five-minute video would be perfect. But soon after the first class, Zachary said he and Jacob knew they had something much bigger in store.
The students started out shy, he said, unsure about where this class was going to go. Most all of the small group had some form of vision — only two were completely blind. And most all of them had taken some sort of art class before.
Each student was given a point-and-shoot digital camera to use. Once they got their hands on cameras and learned the basics of operation, things changed.
“Most had a general idea of whether they could do it or really wanted to try,” Zachary said. “Over the course of the class, once they tried to use them, you could see their faces light up. ‘This is easy. This is something I can do.’ Over the course of the class, they all got a lot of confidence and were really excited to take photos.”
Parts of the documentary shows the excitement of students to hear about the images they captured.
A shot of a car’s brake lights through a rainy window.
A computer monitor with text enlarged to the point where only six or seven words fit on the screen.
A motorcycle rider with a goggles-wearing dog riding right behind him in a specially made seat.
“Fleeting Light” follows the students through the class, hearing descriptions of their pictures and attending the exhibit where their work was featured. The documentary was screened for the first time at the deadCenter Film Festival in 2017, which led to a few screenings on OETA, a PBS affiliate, in 2018. Those screenings allowed the documentary to receive a Heartland Emmy nomination.
The project left a mark on the brothers, Zachary said. In a world becoming increasingly dependent on vision, the loss of it can seem crippling.
“The world is pretty much built around sighted people, and we take for granted how most people can see,” Zachary said. “The world isn’t catering to the vision impaired by default. A lot of us like to assume that if we lost most of our sight or went completely blind, we’d have no idea what we would do. The idea of that sounds so debilitating.
“From teaching that class and getting to know the students, a lot of those people can’t do things the same way, but they can pretty much do anything. They just have to do it a different way. It’s comforting to know even if we suddenly lost our vision doesn’t mean our life is over.”