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ARTICLE

On Island of the Colorblind, Paradise has a Different Hue

On Island of the Colorblind, Paradise has a Different Hue

An island in the Pacific has a unique genetic history that affects how its people understand color.

Grades

4 - 12

Subjects

Biology, Genetics, Social Studies

Image

Pingelap Island

This airstrip on Pingelap Atoll is one of the few ways to travel to this remote island in the Federated States of Micronesia.

Photograph by PJF Military Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
This airstrip on Pingelap Atoll is one of the few ways to travel to this remote island in the Federated States of Micronesia.
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Pingelap Atoll is a tiny island in the South Pacific, and is just one of the 600 islands that make up the Federated States of Micronesia. Pingelap is also sometimes called by another name, the Island of the Colorblind. That's the name Oliver Sacks assigned the island in his 1996 book that explored the human brain. Pingelap earned the interest of Sacks and many other scientists because of its strange genetic circumstance. According to legend, a devastating typhoon in 1775 killed off all but a few of the island's residents. One of the survivors, the ruler, carried a rare gene for an extreme type of color blindness. Eventually, he passed the gene to the island's later generations.

Today roughly 10 percent of the around 250 people who live on the island are still believed to have the gene for color blindness, also known as complete achromatopsia. Elsewhere in the world, only one-in-30,000 people have it. Because 10 percent (or, one in 10) of residents on the island have the gene, the concept of color and who can see it has acquired new meaning among people in Pingelap.

Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde has used the island and the concept of color blindness to inspire a series of images on genetics. She visited Pingelap in 2015. The photographer created photos showing the world as a color-blind person might see it. Some are complete black-and-white images. But several color-blind people on the island claimed they could see slight differences in some colors, like red or blue. So De Wilde used infrared photo settings and lenses on her camera to distort and mute certain colors. She invited some of the color-blind islanders to paint over some of the images with watercolors to reflect how they saw the world.

Sometimes Color Is Just A Word


The challenge of vision impairment, of course, is that it's hard to understand something the eye has never seen. What is orange to a person who only knows black and white? "Color is just a word to those who cannot see it," De Wilde said. Once back from the island, she created in her Amsterdam studio an art show to make people see what it's like being color-blind. Visitors were invited to paint using colors that never seem to appear. Then later, to their surprise, they were shown their blindly colorful artwork.

"What I'm really trying to do is to invite people to a new way of seeing and interacting with the world," says De Wilde. The eyes are the body's first ambassadors to the world. A project about color becomes a project about perspective, and how two people's are never quite the same.

Media Credits

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Director
Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Author
Daniel Stone
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Producer
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
other
Last Updated

July 19, 2022

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