A Photographer’s Infrared Journey to the Island of the Colorblind
Photographer Sanne de Wilde’s The Island of the Colorblind investigates a Pacific atoll where an unusually high percentage of the population has total color blindness.
Sanne de Wilde, “On the way back from a picnic to one of the uninhabited small islands around Pingelap with the colorblind Pingelapese and all the children of the one school of the island. The bay is now protected, islanders are no longer allowed to fish for turtles. Because of the infrared colors the scene looks very romantic, at the same time there’s the visual connotation of the boats full of refugees setting off for a better future.” (© Sanne de Wilde)
Achromatopsia, or total color blindness, is extremely rare, affecting about one in 30,000 people. Yet on the tiny Micronesian atoll of Pingelap, 4% to 10% of the population has this syndrome. Belgian photographer Sanne de Wilde journeyed to this small Pacific community, and the neighboring Pohnpei where a population of Pingelapese live, to photograph in black and white and infrared its people and landscapes, now published in The Island Of The Colorblind.
The book, released by Kehrer Verlag, features long exposures of the quick blinking of those with achromatopsia, where their eyes blur between open and closed; otherworldly visions of the lush island saturated of its hues; and black and white photographs drenched in unexpected colors. After de Wilde returned from Pingelap, she worked with a Dutch organization for achromatopsia. Their members were invited to paint her black and white photographs without direction, resulting in a parrot with feathers in surreal tones, and a tree growing blue, yellow, and green branches.
Cover of The Island of the Colorblind by Sanne De Wilde (courtesy Kehrer Verlag)
“Sometimes an idea sparks your mind and lingers, glowing in the dark in the back of your head, like a shiny thought-sparkle,” de Wilde writes in an afterword for The Island of the Colorblind. “That is how Pingelap came to me. I was told the island-tale and instantly felt I had to pluck this shooting star out of the sky, hold onto it, care for it, and let it guide me.”
The artist and photographer often considers how genetic conditions can impact our ways of seeing, and being seen. Her previous series include The Dwarf Empire, on a community of little people in southern China, whose home is run as a commercial destination that trades on voyeurism, as well as Samoa Kekea on albinism in Samoa. The Island of the Colorblind was inspired by the research of Oliver Sacks on Pingelap; the late neurologist published a book of the same title in 1997. Some of his text is woven through de Wilde’s images of infrared jungles and portraits where faces and eyes are obscured by hands, leaves, and light.
“The first children with the Pingelap eye disease were born in the 1820s and within a few generations their numbers had increased to more than five percent of the population” Sacks wrote in his study. He added: “Ordinary colorblindness, arising from a defect in the retinal cells, is almost always partial, and some forms are very common: red-green colorblindness occurs to some degree in one in twenty men (it’s much rarer in women). But total congenital colorblindness, or achromatopsia, is surpassingly rare, affecting perhaps only one person in thirty or forty thousand.”
The reason Pingelap has such high rates of achromatopsia is attributed to an 18th-century typhoon which wrecked the population. A survivor — a king with the condition — is said to have had many children who in turn repopulated the isolated island, causing the genetic condition to continue through the generations. De Wilde’s photographs alternate between a washed-out tropical paradise, and details of the everyday lives of its inhabitants. The book itself is UV-sensitive, changing colors in sunlight, so the viewer is continually asked to question their own certainty of sight.
“There is no one image that lingers longer than another, no denouement encountered through a synaesthetic experience of colors,” Azu Nwagbogu, director of the African Artists’ Foundation, writes in a book essay. “For a brief moment, one is imbued with an ability to experience light in a different way, like the blinding brilliance of revelatory beauty in all its varied forms.”
Sanne De Wilde, “The parrot with its squinting eye half open was the beginning of the project; a ‘tropical’ symbol for colors. It was later colored by an achromatope not aware of which colors she was using (yet applying them quite correctly).” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “A Pingelapese child is playing with fire. On the island they burn all the trash. At the same time, holding and moving around a burning branch is good to keep the mosquitos away. An achromatopic picture-painting, filled in with watercolor paint by someone with achromatopic vision.” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “Jaynard (achromatope) climbs a tree in the garden, to pick fruits and play. I took the picture while he was climbing back down. The sun comes peeking through the branches; bright light makes him keep his eyes closed. Sadly local people are often not growing their own food. But the trees around them naturally grow coconuts, breadfruit, bananas, and leaves used to chew the betel nuts.” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “Eric (achromatope) is posing for a flashlight-portrait. On Pingelap there is only solar electricity, at night everyone walks along the one, main street with a torch. I asked him to hold still and look at the light. Naturally, because of his sensitivity to light, his eyes turn to the back of his head while looking into the light.” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “A pile of fishing nets in the shape of a mountain close to the domestic airport in Pohnpei from where the tiny airplane (carrying 4-6 people) sets off to Pingelap.” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “Jaynard (achromatope) plays with a disco-light-torch I brought from Belgium. I asked him what he saw. He answered ‘colors’ and kept staring into the light.” (© Sanne De Wilde)
Sanne De Wilde, “Jaynard (achromatope) is playing in the garden with the branch of a banana tree that had to be cut down. He’s wearing the mask I made for him for Halloween. He loved it so he kept putting it on the days after.” (© Sanne De Wilde)