Nestling deep within the Pacific Ocean is a tiny atoll called Pingelap. Remarkable not just for its paradisal jungles and ocean vistas, but for the rare genealogy its islanders share. Known as the ‘Island of the Colourblind’, Pingelap has a high concentration of people presenting achromatopsia-gen, a genetic trait that causes severe colour blindness. Fascinated by this unusual phenomenon, photographer Sanne de Wilde travelled to the island in 2015, asking how does someone who can’t see colour experience it? If you're curious as to how, her findings have been printed in an opalescent tome with Hannibal Publishing, set to be released at Festival Circulation(s) this week.
The Flemish native – who recently scooped the Kolga 2016 Award and Nikon Press Promising Photographer Award 2016 – first appeared on the radar with her series “Snow White”. A project that highlighted and subsequently confronted perceptions of Albinism, and inadvertently lead her on the trail to “Island of the Colorblind”: “A Belgian radio station invited me to talk about my fascination for rare, site specific, genetic trails creating collective (physical) identities within (geographically or socially isolated) communities. A young Belgian achromatopsic man heard me talk and sent me an email saying ‘I have a story for you’. I met him and came to know of the existence of Pingelap. It was as if he presented me with a gift”
The project takes its name from Anthropologist-cum-neurologist Oliver Sacks’ bestselling 1996 title, which chronicled his investigation into the lives of Micronesian achromatopes. De Wilde was aware of the book but laments “I wrote to Oliver Sacks, but by then his illness had reached the final stage and no longer allowed him to respond to me. He passed away the week I left for Pingelap.” Like de Wilde, Sacks was drawn to the myth that circled the island. A tale that began in the 18th-century, when a catastrophic typhoon swept over Pingelap killing all but three Islanders, one of whom was the colourblind king.
Although, de Wilde is quick to point out her work took on a very different role to that of Sacks. “I’m not a scientific researcher. I’m a visual researcher, a photographer. I didn’t study achromatopsia in all its scientific aspects; I studied it visually and learned through first-hand experience. I did not conduct factual research; my project consists of image-based footage mixed with conversations, myths, and storytelling”.
And de Wilde tells the islanders story beautifully. To shoot the series, she jumped between monochrome and infrared, using a digital camera to reprogram light meter and colour readings. A number of the photographs were then re-painted by achromats in the Netherlands in ‘colouring sessions’. The resulting series is full of visual lustre; Pingelap becomes a surreal fantasia of palatable candy pinks and soft pastels. The scenery of the island appears more nuanced, it’s subtleties are emphasised in varying velvetine shades. 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.”
Achromatopes as it turns out, can be more perceptive than the average Londoner. Those with the defect have an acute appreciation of pattern, tone, luminance, and shadow. While the Islanders are limited to shades of grey, the way they process and understand the world draws from an array of senses, while “normal” folk rely on one. In “Island of the Colourblind” De Wilde upends preconceived ideas about achromatopsia – and disability as a whole – using ironically, colour. By providing us a visceral experience of how achromatic sight might look and feel, de Wilde opens our eyes anew.