On first hearing the title of photographer Sanne De Wilde’s new book it could sound like a work of science fiction. But the images collected in The Island of the Colourblind seek to both document and illuminate the experience of real people living on a small Pacific Ocean atoll, where 10% of the population are affected by this condition. And while we may think of colourblindness as typically being focused around problems distinguishing between red and green, these islanders see the world entirely in black and white.
The island is called Pingelap, and the origins of its name as ‘Colourblind Island’ date back to 1780, when a tsunami struck the island, almost completely wiping out the population. Only about twenty inhabitants survived, one of whom was the king. The king went on to have lots of children who inherited his hereditary colourblindness. Due to the isolation of the island this genetic glitch became embedded in a great number of the islanders down the generations. The colourblindness prevalent on the island renders the world in black and white, creating problems with simple things like, for example, preparing food – one theory about why humans are able to see so many colours has to do with giving us an ability to tell whether food is edible or not just by looking. However one advantage the islanders have is an increased ability to see in the dark. Fishing is therefore done at night, using flaming torches to attract the fish.
De Wilde’s images attempt to capture the experience of the islanders through a number of artistic strategies. Photographs of islanders emphasising their eyes and faces create a series of empathic portraits of those affected, while landscape photographs taken in colour but digitally converted to black and white later convey a surreal sense of how the island may look to many of the inhabitants. A third strand of the photographs are achromatic picture-paintings – De Wilde took pictures in black and white, then asked achromats in the Netherlands to paint colour back in. The resulting, bleached out images, lit up with shots of yellow and pink, perhaps come closest to conveying the unfamiliar visual world in which so many Pingelap residents live.