The Island of the Colorblind

In the late 1700s a disastrous typhoon wrecked the Micronesian island of Pingelap and left the population nearly decimated. The patriarch of the island was one of the nearly twenty survivors. The British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote these words describing the situation in Pingelap, post-typhoon, “within a few decades the population was reapproaching a hundred. But with this heroic breeding—and, of necessity, inbreeding—new problems arose.” The problems Sacks mentioned are achromatopsia, or color blindness, and photophobia, or sensitivity to bright light.

The result is an island full of people, an estimated 1 in 10, who are suffering from achromatopsia and/or photophobia.

Upon a random encounter with a stranger with a hunch about the Pingelapese’s plight, Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde decided to board a flight to explore a life without color.

De Wilde spent one month challenging her understanding of color and ended with a disorienting series of photos that explore the suffering of light, and the understanding of color by people who can’t see it. Her series consists of  black-and-white and infrared photos, and with the help of achromats in Amsterdam she included hand painted, black-and-white photos.  Some of the most uncomfortable images are portraits of photophobics who have a light shown on their faces while De Wilde photographs their reactions. Their rapidly blinking creates a ghostly look over their eyes.

The result of De Wilde’s series is a book, named The Island of the Colorblind. Her work leaves the viewer with innumerable questions and urges us to learn more about sight without color.

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