Variety, surprise, movement and development are recurring themes when Sanne De Wilde talks about her work, and underpin her views on the changes in photography today. “The greatest evolution right now is that people are opening up to using all sorts of different media,” she says. “People get easily caught up in their own way of seeing things. We are afraid of change. You see that at different levels in this world. One way of dealing with change is often to push it away, and not allow it in, so the fact that photographers are not just allowing it in but embracing it is, for me, one of the biggest evolutions at the moment.”
Sanne’s project The Island of the Color Blind is a vibrant demonstration of the embracing of change. The project focuses on people on the Micronesian island of Pingelap, an extraordinary number of whom live with a genetic condition known as achromatopsia, or total color blindness. They see no color, are extremely sensitive to light, and generally have poor vision. Worldwide, achromatopsia affects only about 0.00003% of the population, but some 10% of the people on Pingelap have it. Sanne first heard about the condition and the island while working on another project. “It triggered me instantly,” she says. “I felt I had to go there, and had to share this story, to work in different ways trying to re-invent, rediscover, redefine color while photographing.”
“I wanted to let go of all control over color and to surprise myself”.
“One of the questions this project is posing is what do we actually see,” says Sanne. “Do we see the same? What do you see? Is your pink my pink?” Sanne chose to work in black and white, “because achromatopes see the world in shades of gray”, and also had a camera converted to infrared, as part of an experiment to expand her own boundaries. “I wanted to let go of all control over color and to surprise myself,” she says. “I had no idea how the result would turn out.” As a third step, when back in Belgium, she invited people with achromatopsia to repaint her images, reintroducing color. She declined requests to inform them which the ‘right’ colors were, and encouraged them to choose whatever paints they wanted. “I was trying to let surprises come in,” she says, “to let other people’s views in, and also to look through their eyes. It’s about embracing the diversity of how people see the world and showing different perspectives, not trying to direct them.” Perhaps surprisingly, the colors they chose closely matched those that color-sighted people might choose.
Every project is executed differently, depending on the subject; no one exhibition is the same as another.
This diversity of perspective is reflected in the variety of ways Sanne shows her work, and the different platforms she chooses. Every project is executed differently, depending on the subject; no one exhibition is the same as another. “I try to make a collage or a puzzle of the images, to have them communicate and work together in form and color, and I use different carriers, different materials to print the pictures on,” says Sanne. For this project that includes wood, and a silvery aluminum, “if you look closely you see all the colors of the rainbow in the glittery structure of the material.” There are also framed photo-paintings (“co-operative artworks”), a book (“every page has to be different, to trigger, inspire or surprise”), video portraits that document achromatropes’ eye movements and reaction to light, and an interactive installation. “The installation adds a different layer of experimenting,” says Sanne. “I want to bring people closer to an understanding of what it means to be colorblind, what color means and what lack of color means; how we see the world and how we see the world differently.” She feels the project has the capacity to be a VR experience, but one that also requires people to use their own eyes, their own imaginations. “As with using infrared, VR can’t just be a trick. It as to be a way to empower vision,” she says.
“In photography right now people also want to embrace the three-dimensional”.
“Everything is always in process, developing,” says Sanne. She draws on a diverse background—as a painter and working in theater—to integrate past skills into present projects, and feels she is not alone in this more varied approach. “In photography right now people also want to embrace the three-dimensional,” she says. “You don’t always want to be stuck in a 2-D frame; you try to tell a story in many different ways. I’ve never believed in this one image, the decisive moment. My projects are always a puzzle of all different ways of fitting in thoughts. I need to do different things in order to be able to breathe, to be able to feel I’m in a transformation, that I’m learning, that I’m moving towards something. I feel better when I’m on the road, when I’m moving, not standing still.” An inspiring approach, perhaps, for the photography industry as a whole.