The Man Who Sees in Black and White

His colorblindness, he says, developed over the course of several months during his sophomore year of high school.

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Oct 30 2018, 5:35pm

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Julian Crisp sees life in black and white, literally. The 24-year-old computer technician from a small town in Victoria, Australia, has monochromacy, a rare type of colorblindness in which one sees only in greyscale. Crisp says the condition doesn’t cause him much hardship, and he often forgets he sees differently, except for when he has to use colored computer wires.

People tend to have a lot of questions when they learn about Crisp’s condition—he hosted a popular Reddit AMA about his monochromacy in 2015. He describes it as being a little like how a dog sees—except, it turns out, most people have the wrong impression when it comes to canine eyesight. “A lot of people think dogs are monochromatic,” Crisp says, “but they [actually] can’t see greens, which is why most dog toys are either red or blue.”

Crisp wasn’t always monochromatic. His colorblindness, he says, developed over the course of several months during his sophomore year of high school. “I didn’t notice too much until I started to [see] a certain shade of yellow [looked] like a certain shade of blue, even though they are completely different. But their brightness is the same,” he says. We talked to Crisp about how the loss of color perception has affected his life—and whether or not he'd reverse the condition if he was given the chance.

How do you explain how you see to other people?
The best way to explain is to take a photo with your phone and put it into Instagram and drain the colors out of it. That’s exactly how I see. There are no actual colors. It goes from white to black and everything is on that scale in between. I can tell things apart by shade and brightness, but not by color. It does affect me a little bit with work because I’m an IT technician. I don’t make my own network cables anymore. I just buy them. Color coding things, I usually get my [romantic] partner to help or one of my mates. I don’t notice it too much day to day.

When was the last time you noticed it?
Probably a couple weeks ago, I was making up a multi-core, which just a big thick cable with a bunch of microphone and audio leads running through it and they’re all color-coded, different colors for different channels. As soon as I unwrapped the tape, I thought, “These all look different, so I assume they’re different colors.” I sent a photo to my partner, via messenger, and she confirmed they’re all different colors. I used masking tape and I just labeled them a, b, c and d and went through the alphabet. Once every few weeks, I remember that it’s there but it doesn’t really affect me too much.


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Have you ever gotten a medical or scientific explanation of the cause of your condition?
I have talked to a couple of different optometrists, because I also have astigmatism; I have a couple of problems with vision. I don’t understand it too much—I believe it’s a rod problem. It’s just rods and cones in your eyes. I’ve been meaning to look more into it, just so I can know more about the condition itself, so it’s easier for me to explain to others. I have talked to a few optometrists and they say it’s not common. But obviously it does happen. There are probably a few thousand people that have it depending on the country.

And you can’t drive, correct? Are there any other restrictions because of your eyesight?
VicRoads, which is kind of the Australian equivalent of the DMV, they say while it’s not illegal, they do not advise that someone with the condition drives. I know the order of traffic lights. I can see when they’re turned on and they’re not turned on. I know the shape and rough color of street signs because I have been able to see color before. But I don’t drive. I can’t be a pilot. The aviation industry is super-strict on it, which is fair enough.

Does your selection of clothes or interior decorating seem off to other people?
I get a lot of questions about why I dress in black and it’s just because I like it. It’s easy. It doesn’t show stains. It’s easy to wash. I do a lot of work with my hands in a workshop and if I get something on my hands, I can wipe it off and it doesn’t make a mess. I don’t dress in black because I don’t see color well. I have a couple of … I think they’re blue shirts. I follow a couple of Canadian hockey teams. I don’t really like Australian sports. I’ve got a Vancouver Canucks shirt. I have a couple of different colors in my lineup that I wear. Apparently they’re mostly blue though.

Do you enjoy visual art? Would a visit to a famous museum be really boring to you?

I’ve thought a lot about that. There is a café in my town that’s a very art-inspired café and I love it there. I think it’s awesome. They are constantly rotating their lineup. I appreciate it as much as anyone. It’s not so much the visual work that goes into it; it’s the physical and mental effort that goes into doing art. I’ve tried drawing. I’m terrible at it. My partner draws and she’s really good at it. She has a lot of different ways she draws, fine lines with different colors and pens, but the color is not what’s important to me. It’s the effort that goes into it.

I don’t want to reduce you to a condition. Is there anything else you want people to know about you?
I’m 24. I’ve been in a long-distance relationship, which is fine. We’ve been engaged since May. I love building things. I didn’t do well in school. I dropped out in year 10, just because I had a lot of problems learning in school. I found that I worked better learning by myself than in a group. I’ve played drums for 14 years. I love music. Whenever I am, I have music playing. I’m currently building a guitar for someone. I don’t know how to play them, but I love building them. They are a lot more mechanical than drums. I have a dog. She’s sitting down next to me at the moment. Her name’s Millie. She goes absolutely everywhere with me.

Do you want to see colors? If there was an operation, would you undergo it?
Depending on the cost. If I had a surgeon approach me who was reputable and he had documents and studies to back him up and he said, “Do you want to do this for free?” I’d be like, “Cool, no worries.” If it’s going to cost a hundred thou, it’s honestly not worth it to me, because I only notice it every few months if I am wiring something or if I’m doing something in Photoshop and I need to know the colors.

What’s your maximum price? How much is seeing colors worth to you?
Probably $7,000 US, which is $10,000 here. I think that might be okay for it. I might take a loan for it, if possible. It’s not something I think about. It’s not something that bothers me.

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