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A Photographer Explores Color in Micronesia With People Who Can’t See It

By Sara Button

Feb 14, 2018

From the March/April 2018 issue

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Pingelap, an atoll in Micronesia, shot in infrared

Photo by Sanne De Wilde

Pingelap, an atoll in Micronesia, shot in infrared

A new photo book explores the meaning of color among a unique population on a remote Pacific island.

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More than 200 years ago, as the legend goes, a devastating typhoon struck the remote Micronesian island of Pingelap. The atoll’s small population was decimated, left with only a handful of survivors to repopulate the community, including their king. He happened to father many children. He also happened to be a carrier of the recessive genetic disorder achromatopsia. By some estimates, 10 percent of today’s population on Pingelap has the disorder, which is characterized by poor vision, extreme light sensitivity, and complete color blindness.

When Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde heard this story, she was compelled to make the trip to Pingelap and help tell their stories. What resulted is her first book, The Island of the Colorblind (Kehrer Verlag, 2017). “Photography for me is really about sharing and engaging,” De Wilde says. “The people I photograph are often people that others don’t easily relate to or engage with. That’s true in this case specifically because people just don’t know the story or that achromatopsia exists.”

People with achromatopsia painted some of De Wilde’s black-and-white photos for the book.
She didn’t know anyone who had been to Pingelap before and wasn’t sure where the project was taking her. But she trusted the process. “There’s this little seed inside your tummy that tells you that you want to make something grow. That is fed by the belief in the power of sharing and trying to empower people that might have a vulnerable position in society.”

So she traveled to Pingelap and Pohnpei, a nearby island (and the same places discussed by the late Oliver Sacks in his book, also titled The Island of the Colorblind), and stayed with a local family. Her time spent there with people with achromatopsia led De Wilde to question her own perceptions of color. “When you talk to a group of people that sees the world that way, the examples become very real and understandable,” De Wilde says. She now is much more aware of how people with achromatopsia feel about it.

The book includes writings and interviews with people with achromatopsia about how they think about color. Some reflect on what it’s like to live and even dream in shades of gray, while others answer such questions as “[If you could see in color] what would you want to see?” (One replied “my daughter”; another, “a field of tulips.”)
A child with achromatopsia plays with a disco flashlight. He told De Wilde he sees “colors” when he looks at it.
While photographing on the island, De Wilde experimented with different techniques to symbolically conceptualize how people with achromatopsia see the world, and the book is divided into three parts to showcase that. A variety of black-and-white shots parallel the varying tones an achromat might see on the lush tropical island. Images shot in infrared urge the viewer (and helped De Wilde herself) to imagine a world unrestricted by the boundaries of color. And when she returned to her home base in the Netherlands, she connected with people who have achromatopsia and invited them to paint a number of the other black-and-white photos. “I’m trying to show how they perceive the world and how that counterbalances the way they see color...the attempt is to open a conversation and a new view.”

De Wilde hopes it’s not the last she’s seen of Micronesia. She aims to return to Pingelap and give a copy of the photo book to her host family in person. “For me, traveling is really a way of life,” De Wilde says. “That’s how I ended up in photography. Being on the road and in motion is such an important feeling that drives me to create.”

>>Next: Exploring Asia’s Suprising New Capital of Cool

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