‘Island of the Colorblind’: Where the jungle is pink, the sea is gray and the light is far too bright

Written by Dalya Alberge, CNN

In Sanne De Wilde‘s photographs of Pingelap, a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean, nothing is quite as it seems. Her images depict a tropical paradise where the jungle vegetation is pale pink, the sea is gray and local inhabitants are seen in black and white.

But the Belgian photographer has captured the world not as she sees it — but as she imagines the islanders do.

Dubbed the “Island of the Colorblind,” Pingelap is home to an unusually high proportion of people who cannot distinguish color. While achromatopsia (also known as “total” colorblindness) occurs in around 1 in 30,000 people globally, the incidence in Pingelap’s small population is believed to be between 4% and 10%.
The condition has been traced back to a former king, one of around 20 islanders to survive a catastrophic tsunami in the late 18th century. With most of his subjects wiped out, the king is believed to have helped repopulate Pingelap by having numerous children.
But many of his descendants inherited a rare gene that causes achromatopsia. The hereditary condition continues to be passed down through generations.

Color is ‘just a word’

Fascinated with how genetics shape people and communities, De Wilde has published her extraordinary images in a new book, “The Island of the Colorblind.” The photographs were shot on Pingelap and a larger island called Pohnpei, almost 300 kilometers away.

“The Pingelapese formed small communities on Pohnpei,” De Wilde explained. “(But even) among the Pingelapese there, the percentage of achromatopsia is still very high.”

De Wilde attempts to see through the eyes of its colorblind residents by manipulating the tones and hues of her images. In a monochrome world, color is “just a word” to those who cannot see it, she said.

Islanders claim to “see” red the most, so De Wilde accentuated and manipulated the color by shooting in infrared.

Others told her that green is their favorite color, though it is one of the shades they are least able to recognize. The photographer believes that this is the Pingelapese people’s way of conveying love for the jungle vegetation around them.

Seeing the world differently

Born in Antwerp, the 29-year-old photographer has won awards for profiling people who see the world differently — or who are themselves perceived as different — including her series on dwarfism in China.

In another series, titled “Samoa Kekea,” she documented albinism in Samoa. De Wilde sees a connection between this project and her study of colorblindness in Pingelap.

“Albinism is a genetic condition” she said. “And you could say that — due to natural borders the sea creates — genes circulate in small island communities.”

After talking about her Samoa photographs on the radio, De Wilde was contacted by a listener who told her about Pingelap. It had previously been the subject of a book by British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died the week before the photographer flew to the island in 2015.

‘A tiny dot in the big blue’

“It wasn’t easy to get to Pingelap,” De Wilde said. “It is a little atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A tiny dot in the big blue.

“I flew to the US, from the mainland to Hawaii, then hopped to the Marshall Islands. I eventually set foot on Pohnpei, one of the bigger islands of the Federate States of Micronesia. From there I took a four-seat charter plane to Pingelap.”

Upon arrival, she found one street and no shops or restaurants. Islanders live off coconuts and the fish they catch, living a life that De Wilde described as “very basic.”

“(People with) achromatopsia are extremely light-sensitive, which is a burden on a super sunny, tropical island,” she said. “In the daylight, the world looks like a burned-out image. They can hardly keep their eyes open when outside.

“They don’t see color at all. That’s why everything appears to them in shades of grey — everything in between black and white. I didn’t change any colors. The infrared camera did. And the other images I just converted to black and white using Photoshop.”

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