A Breathtaking Look at Life on “The Island of the Colorblind”

Photo: 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. © Sanne De Wilde.

More than a thousand years ago, peoples of an unknown origin arrived in Pingelap, one of the 80 atolls scattered through the Pacific Ocean around Pohnpei, in Micronesia. Over a period of eight centuries, the flourished under an elaborate system of hereditary kings, oral culture, and mythology that kept the population of nearly 1,000 thriving.

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Then, in 1775, everything changed. Typhoon Lengkiekie swept across Pingelap decimating the island nation. Of the estimated 20 survivors was the king. Of great fortune to the tribe was their extreme fertility. Within a few decades, the population was approaching 100, but with this came the continuation of a genetic condition of the king. He carried the achromatospia-gen; he was colorblind—and soon, so were many people on the tiny atoll.

6. 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. © Sanne De Wilde.

In Pingelap, an estimated 5% of the population of 700 are colorblind, whereas the figures are closer to an estimated 1 in 30,000 anywhere else on earth. The phenomenon was first documented by neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who set up a clinic in a one-room island dispensary, where islanders described their colorless world in terms of light and shadow, pattern and tone, transforming their history into the book The Island of the Colorblind (A.A. Knopf, 1997).

Recognizing the prejudices, biases, and underlying sense of superiority that runs rampant throughout the book, Belgian artist and photographer Sanne De Wilde set out to visit Pingelap to study “maskun,” the native word for the condition, which translate as “not-see” with an open mind and heart. The result is a reclamation of this world, an incredible, vibrant, evocative work bearing the same name: The Island of the Colorblind (Kehrer Verlag).

Unlike Dr. Sacks, De Wilde traveled to the island without assistants, and approached the people from a perspective of curiosity rooted in profound respect and a desire to translate their experience to a world that could never see as they do. In doing so, she brings the words of French painter Edgar Degas to life, creating a world that speaks to the dictum, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

In De Wilde’s photographs we see the world rendered anew, as though we are living inside the very work of art. “Everything they saw was black and white,” De Wilde reveals in the book’s introduction, written by Azu Nwagbogu. “But at night, they seemed to see better, like their ghostly father.”

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

At night, a mystical realm of colors begin to reveal themselves, shades, tones, and hues that describe the world like a poem. Reds, pinks, corals, lilacs, and blues, scenes that are at once intense, fantastical images of a tropical realm. Then we see life in simple black and white, devoid of the vibrations that color evokes. It is not a lessening, but rather a deepening, a focus on the presence that exists before us on its own terms.

De Wilde interviews the islanders to learn from them, to understand what life could be like is color were a discovery, and how it informs our experiences, from the simplest of pleasures such as a ripened banana to the most spiritual of moments, like the setting of the sun. She takes these lessons to heart in the creation of each photograph she makes.

“Would you want to see color?” she asks her subjects, and the responses are mixed. Then she asks, “What would you want to see.” One woman answers, “My children’s eyes,” reminding us of the profound beauty most of us take for granted and never fully realize.

The Island of the Colorblind is a powerful revelation, not just of the depths and complexities of the human experience and the ways in which we live, but in the power of art to make visible that which can never fully see for ourselves. The photographs, coupled with the interviews humanizes what could be an otherwise extremely foreign realm, creating layers of both the exotic and the familiar, the mystical and the banal.

It is a meditation on the ability to communicate beyond that which we know, leaving the confines of our comfort zone in search of understanding something more that ourselves, but in so discovering that which we share is greater than that which divides us.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.