Monday 24 July 2017

From Wimbledon to the remote Pacific

Two online news stories caught my eye recently.

The BBC web site has a short video montage showing photographs taken by Belgian photographer Sanne de Wilde on the Pacific island of Pingelap. This island is notable because a disproportionate number of the inhabitants are totally colour blind, a condition called achromatopsia. They basically have no functioning cones in their eyes. The cones are what provide us with detailed colour vision, while the rods are more sensitive but only register brightness and at a lower resolution. Our brains combine the two and while we think we see everything in sharp colour, this is not actually the case and only the centre of our vision is actually sharp and colourful. There is another difference between the two parts of our vision, which is that we process the rod images faster than the cone ones. The result of this is that if you look at a bank of TV screens, all showing the same programme, and watch for cuts between shots the screens you are not looking at will seem to cut first.

The colour blindness on Pingelap results from a genetic bottleneck, when most of the population were killed by a tsunami in the 18th century. One of the survivors happened to have the colour blindness and since the population was so small the genetic defect became more prevalent. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about the island in his 1997 book The Island of the Colorblind.

Sanne de Wilde has also produced a book with this title but in her case she has uses faux-colour infrared photography as a way of looking at the islanders' condition and has produced some striking images. A 10 minute film was also shown at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and a book is available (which has a UV-sensitive cover!). Check out the web site at and those of the book's publishers, Kehrer Verlag and Uitgeverij Kanibaal.

You probably know that Wimbledon fortnight has just finished and, with it, the 2017 tennis championships. The Guardian's sports photographer, Tom Jenkins, decided to take some faux-colour infrared shots at the championships and you can see the results on this web page. My only niggle is that whoever wrote the captions is confused between near-infrared and thermal imaging because these photographs are not thermal images and do not show heat. Nevertheless they are fascinating, partly because Tom has sometimes used selective focus to increase the otherworldliness of the scenes, making them take on the appearance of models.