Exhibitions: The Island of the Colorblind

By David Schonauer   Sunday July 23, 2017

In most places, colorblindness is rare.

But the Micronesian island of Pingelap isn’t most places.

Known as the Island of the Colorblind, the tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean has a high concentration of people presenting achromatopsia, a genetic trait that causes severe colorblindness. Typically, the trait occurs in fewer than one in 30,000 people. More than five percent of the population of Pingelap is affected by the hereditary condition.

The islanders have many theories as to why, notes the British Journal of Photography: “According to one, the disease came from Dokas, wife of the 19th century ruler Nahnmwarki Okonomwaun, who had two achromatopic children said to have been fathered by the god Isoahpahu. Another myth references an angry missionary, who cursed Nahnmwarki Mwahuele; yet another warns pregnant women off walking on the beach at noon, lest the blazing sun partially blind their unborn children.”

Another tale told of a typhoon that killed all but three islanders, one of whom was colorblind, adds Dazed.

When she heard about the Island of the Colorblind, Belgian photographer Sanne de Wilde  became fascinated. “I was invited onto a radio show to talk about my project Samoa Kekea, about albinism on the Polynesian islands of Upolu and Savai’i,” she tells BJP. “Afterwards I was contacted by Roel van Gils, a Belgian man who has achromatopsia, who said ‘I have a story for you.’ I met him and was immediately very interested. I felt I had to do it.”

In 2015 de Wilde traveled to Pingelap explore a single question, adds Dazed: How does someone who can’t see color experience it? Her resulting work is on view now at the Arles photography festival and in a new book.

“Sometimes an idea sparks your mind and lingers, glowing in the dark in the back of your head, like a shiny thought-sparkle,”  writes de Wilde in the afterword of her new book, The Island of the Colorblind. The project, notes Dazed, takes its name from the neurologist Oliver Sacks’s bestselling 1996 book  chronicling his investigation into the lives of Micronesian achromatopes. When she began her project, de Wilde reached out to Sacks, who was unable to respond because of illness: He died of cancer the week that the photographer left for the island.

In her earlier series on albinism, titled “Snow White,” de Wilde used bleached-out colors to suggest her subjects’ coloring. Her images from Pingelap, on the other hand, are surreal scenes filled with pinks and pastels. “The scenery of the island appears more nuanced, it’s subtleties are emphasized in varying velvetine shades,” notes Dazed. “As de Wilde says, ‘Lush green, the jungle vegetation, is what they are surrounded by most, they love the way it looks. They love the color-tones of the trees and plants although they cannot see green. That’s why you’ll see plants and trees being very present in my pictures.’”

The photographs reveal how the colorblind people of Pingelap perceive their world with an acute appreciation of pattern, tone, luminance, and shadow. “The work she produced there, in the course of an almost monthlong visit, meshes a social-documentary approach with a sort of experiment in point-of-view photography,” writes Max Campbell at The New Yorker. "In each component of her formally adventurous project,” Campbell adds, “de Wilde twists the medium of photography into a metaphor for the boundaries of vision.”

“I’m very interested in how our physical identity is created — what it means to be born into a particular body or to transform yourself into something else,” de Wilde tells BJP.


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