It was in the car, driving with a former boyfriend, when Laura Lawson Visconti first knew something was wrong.
“I mentioned I was thirsty,” she recounts. “He was driving, I was in the passenger seat, and he handed me his soda. I didn't see it until he pointed out it was right by my head and mentioned I had really bad peripheral vision.”
She'd never noticed it before. Sure, she had a habit of running into countertops and desk chairs, but she'd always chalked it up to being clumsy. She booked an appointment at the ophthalmologist anyway.
“I was told almost right away that I probably had retinitis pigmentosa,” the 28-year-old says. “It's such a rare condition, most eye doctors don't even know a lot about it.”
Laura Lawson Visconti was formally diagnosed with the rare vision-loss condition six years ago. There is no cure or treatment for her ailment and she admits it's difficult to explain what's happening to her body. Essentially, she says, the cells in her retinas are dying from the outside in. She's already lost most of her peripheral vision and night vision.
“I miss high-fives, handshakes and often trip over things or walk into cabinet doors left open,” Visconti says. “I have approximately 23 degrees of vision left. Legal blindness is 20 degrees or less.”
What makes Visconti's impending blindness all the more heartbreaking is that her diagnosis came just months after graduating with a degree in Fine Art. She'd already given up driving — would she have to give up her art, too? She turned to an unlikely comfort: Instagram.
“Instagram was released right after I left art school,” she remembers. “I had just found out I was going blind. Even thinking about painting was painful; I avoided art for a long time. Instagram became a fun little outlet.”
At the time, it was just another way to keep her friends updated, but her followers exploded overnight when she was named one of the photo-sharing app's “Suggested Users.” Even then, she couldn't have predicted how much it would impact her life.
Since launching her account, she's amassed more than 100,000 followers. She's penned deals with big-name brands like Nordstrom and Teva, worked with Alaska Airlines and Montana Tourism, and coordinated trips with other Instagram users (she's on her way to Aruba to meet up with @yoga_girl this week and is in the process of planning a kayaking trip through Alaska this summer).
But beyond the opportunities that sprouted from Instagram, she has found a new form of art.
“It's funny,” she says. “Photography has actually been therapy for me because looking through a lens expands my peripheral vision. I think being visually impaired has made me a much better artist in general.”
Of course, Visconti still can't drive, which makes her job frustrating at times.
“I can't drive to shoots, I can't drive clients around; I always have to make special arrangements while traveling,” she explains. That's where her husband comes in. “I think anyone in my life will tell you adamantly that my life has been dramatically changed by Nick,” she says.
Laura is married to former professional snowboarder Nick Visconti, whom she began dating at what she calls the epitome of her “I'm-visually-impaired-and-can't-do-xxx” stage.
Nick introduced her to the outdoors, to new activities, pushed her to write a book about her journey and drove her to the sunsets and mountains she wanted to capture with her camera.
The duo eloped at the top of the Cascade Mountains. She wore a Free People dress and boots. And their wedding photos? They went viral.
“They helped start the adventure elopement trend,” Visconti laughs. “I've received hundreds of emails from brides telling me that our wedding inspired them to do what they really wanted to do.”
Unfortunately, there is no cure for retinitis pigmentosa, but Visconti says her doctor believes she will see a cure in her lifetime. In the meantime, she's involved with a clinical trial and has been trying to lead a healthy lifestyle and fill her photo albums with as many memories as she can.
“Amazingly enough, the last time I had my yearly visit with my doctor, she told me my vision loss hasn't progressed much in the past four years, which is pretty much unheard of,” Visconti says. “I don't know if my lifestyle changes directly impacted my vision, but there's no going back now!”
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