What’s wrong with a purple sun?

It’s been challenging to write about Belgian photographer Sanne de Wilde‘s The Island of the Colorblind. I mentioned the project here once before, but at the time the book was about to be published (by Hannibal Publishers) and I waited for further information, for there was a lot about the project I wasn’t fully understanding. 

The main statement about the project lets us in on its premises. So what island is this? Sanne tels us that “[i]n the late eighteenth century a catastrophic typhoon swept over Pingelap [and] one of the sole survivors, the king, carried the rare achromatopsia-gen that causes complete colorblindness.” What happened was that “[t]he king went on to have many children and […] most islanders started seeing the world in black and white.” I admit what made it difficult to write about this project, once I read about it, was that I kept thinking this was a fictional tale and went into denial mode

Pingelap is a very singular place, not only because of this achromatpsia-gen, but because of its circumstances. As Sanne accounts, there are about 220 inhabitants in the island, from which approximately 40 are colorblind. 

I find this project to be successful in more ways that I can account for. Sanne not only managed to create an original visual essay, she also managed to make her subjects part of the creation process and, in the end, they are the reason this feels like a very sin-cere portrayal of what it could be like to experience colorblindness in an extremely bright environment. As the author explains, “achromatopsia is characterized by extreme light sensitivity, poor vision, and complete inability to distinguish colors”. Sanne also adds that she “tried to find ways to envision how people with achromatopsia see the world. I tried to see the island through their eyes. Daylight is to bright to bear, moonlight turns night into day. Imagine flames lighting up in black and white, trees turning pink, waves of grey. A rainbow revisited.”

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind‘ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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 watercolorpaint by someone with achromatopic vision.

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind‘ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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 betelnuts.

Because the islanders commented that the color they distinguished better was red, Sanne decided to shoot in infrared, meaning that she programmed the digital camera to register the light beyond 720nm (to about 790nm, the infrared spectrum). The islanders have yet to see the results and that sounds wrong, I have to say. However, Sanne comments she wants to “find a way” to go back and show them herself. But what triggered Sanne to visit the Pingelap island in the first place? In her words:

Belgian radio 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 achromatopic 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 Island of the Colorblind is, in fact, the name of a book by the great and late Oliver Sacks. There’s also a documentary, which I strongly recommend (see below). As Sanne notes, “[h]e was the first one to write about achromatopsia on the islands, his book was published in 1996”. But when Sanne started her project she had just been made aware of this reference, so it’s not fair to say Sacks’ work had any influence on her approach. Using the same title is, as she states, an acknowledgment of his work, but still and afterthought.

Sanne is a documentary photographer at heart. She’s also an adventurous. The way she photographs and speaks about the people she photographs is evolving in a way that is certainly the reflex of a maturing process, as an artist. We see a deep connection, almost intrinsic, between her choices as a photographer an the subjects she frames.

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind‘ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind‘ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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.

Not knowing about the bigger context of the work, when I first saw the photographs I was immediately stroke by their uniqueness: yes, at first what stroke me was the color, but after a closer look there was obviously more than that. One could feel the sort of homelessness an achromotope from Pingelap might experience. As Sanne explains, an achromotope in central Europe has a very different experience, for he as access to physicians and technology, but these islanders lack basic conditions (sun glasses) to face the extreme light situations that are presented to them everyday. Is Sanne’s words:

Achromatopsia is not just about not seeing color, achromatopes are extremely light sensitive which is a enormous burden on a super sunny, tropical island. In the daylight the world looks like a burned out image. They can hardly keep their eyes open when outside. You can therefore recognize achromatopic people because they are constantly squinting and blinking their eyes.

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind’ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind’ (Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

On the way back from a picknick 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.

After hearing Sanne on the radio manifesting her interest for genetic mutations, Roel Van Gils contacted her and told her the story about Pingelap. If there is a major influence in his essay, Roel would have to be it. Being completely colorblind, Roel must have been what first fascinated Sanne’s curiosity. Because his RGB cones do not function, he sees the world in black & white. Roel “had” to learn to read color, instead of seeing it. His parents and teachers decided to label his coloring pencils and with time we learned “to color the sun yellow instead of blue, green or purple”. But on this episode, his remarks are enlightening: “At first, I was very proud. But in retrospect it didn’t really matter. What’s wrong with a purple sun?

In The Island of the Colorblind color was not reinvented, but it was released from the constraints of the RBG way of seeing. There’s a lot of pink and red, but also yellow and orange. Overall, there’s a bold and original way of transforming the dynamic shades of grey of the achromatope’s way of seeing into an original map of colors, shapes and textures, that seems to be guided only by two conditions: the tropical sun and the infrared “filter”.

© Sanne de Wilde, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind'(Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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, from the project ‘The Island of the Colorblind'(Hannibal Publishers). October/November 2015.

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.



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