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.
“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.”