Revisiting Oliver Sacks’s “Island of the Colorblind,” in Photographs

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About halfway through the documentary “The Island of the Colorblind,” a
companion to a 1997 book of the same name by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, Sacks recounts a story about the trouble the
English scientist John Dalton had with his socks. As Sacks tells it,
Dalton was reproached by his Quaker peers one day when he broke the dress
code at the meeting house and showed up in vermillion hose. The thing
was, Dalton had been under the impression that he had in fact dressed
himself in the traditional, staid black—his eyes had deceived him. At
the end of the eighteenth century, Dalton, the man who had proposed the
atomic theory, would publish the first major paper on color blindness.
Still today, red-green color blindness, the condition that affected him,
is referred to as Daltonism.

In the film “The Island of the Colorblind,” Sacks tells this story while
visiting the small Micronesian atoll of Pingelap, where an unusually
large portion of the population is affected by complete achromatopsia,
or total color blindness. Whereas an estimated one in forty thousand
people worldwide are afflicted with this condition, among the
Pingelapese, by some estimates, it’s closer to one in ten—a contained
community of people who see the world in shades of gray.

A series of photographs by the Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde,
which will be released this month in a book also titled “The Island of
the Colorblind
,” documents the achromats of Pingelap and the neighboring
island of Pohnpei. A few years ago, after speaking on Belgian radio
about her work on, and interest in, site-specific genetic anomalies, De
Wilde received an e-mail from a listener with achromatopsia. “I’ve got a
story for you,” he wrote, and recounted to her what he knew of the
Pingelapese population. As De Wilde would come to learn, not long before
Dalton published his paper on color blindness a disastrous typhoon
struck Pingelap and nearly wiped out the entire population. The man who ruled the island at the time was one of just twenty or so survivors. He was also a carrier of congenital achromatopsia. As Sacks writes in his
book, “within a few decades the population was reapproaching a hundred.
But with this heroic breeding—and, of necessity, inbreeding—new problems
arose.” The symptoms of achromatopsia, which also include reduced visual
acuity and severe photophobia, or sensitivity to bright light, became
common on the island.

As quickly as she could arrange the trip from Amsterdam to Pingelap, De
Wilde set off for Micronesia. The work she produced there, in the course
of an almost monthlong visit, meshes a social-documentary approach with
a sort of experiment in point-of-view photography. On the island, De
Wilde shot traditional black-and-white photographs, and also
digital-infrared images, which she used to challenge her own
understanding of color. After she returned to Amsterdam, in a workshop
with a Dutch organization for achromats, she asked color-blind
collaborators to paint over some of the black-and-white pictures. The
head of a dog, slaughtered for a celebration, turns an unexpected yellow
at the hands of an achromatic collaborator, a hint of red for the snout.
A parrot has been given a technicolor coat that its author cannot see.
In a series of black-and-white portraits, De Wilde shows us men, women,
and children, close up and centered in the frame. Achromats blink
rapidly when looking into bright light, and De Wilde recorded their
blinking using long exposures. As a result, the eyes of her subjects
appear simultaneously open and closed. We’re reminded of
nineteenth-century photography, when a long exposure was a requirement,
not yet a technique to be employed stylistically, and eyes often showed
up blurry by accident. The picture-paintings make similar reference to
hand-colored photographs from that era. Turning the pages of “The Island of
the Colorblind,” these hints of photo history face off against
contemporary techniques. Green trees shot in infrared glow pink; the sky
above the island appears an otherworldly red, then green, then blue. In
each component of her formally adventurous project, De Wilde twists the
medium of photography into a metaphor for the boundaries of vision.

Yet it is a traditional portrait that provides one of the project’s most
compelling moments. In a black-and-white photograph, a child is
pinching a glass marble between forefinger and thumb, holding it just in
front of her face. The center of the marble appears dark, like a pupil;
at first glance, it’s hard not to mistake the object for an eyeball. As the
psychologist and achromat Knut Nordby explains in the “Island of the
Colorblind” documentary, John Dalton wrote in his will that his eyes
should be removed immediately upon his death so that researchers could
look through his lenses and see if colors would show. The scene of the
girl with her marble could be read as an illustration of De Wilde’s
mission statement, which is a kind of variation on Dalton’s willed wish:
to allow others, for a moment, to understand what the world looks like
from a colorless point of view.

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