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Features / Photography

Synaethesia: A Still-Life Study: Photographer Ryan Hopkinson’s visual exploration of synaesthesia

First published in Printed Pages Summer 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

Photography by

Ryan Hopkinson

Set Design by

Sarah Parker

Photographer Ryan Hopkinson’s fascination with synaesthesia began with Daniel Tammet. East London born, France-based Daniel has Asperger’s syndrome and is known as an autistic savant for his superhuman abilities to solve complicated equations in his head. He has also written and lectured extensively on his synaesthesia, which comes from the Greek words for “sensation” and “together.”

Essentially it means a blending of the senses, so hearing or reading letters, words and numbers can become inextricably linked to tastes, colours or sounds.

“I find this idea of a word or a number being translated into an image in your head really fascinating,” Ryan says. “The more I read about it I found out about all these other types – that taste can be affected or that some people see lines of numbers stretching from behind them all the way in front of them. It’s another world; it’s such a personal experience.

“Every single day I am seeking out images on all these blogs but for people with synaesthesia that just happens, they’ve got no control over it.”

Intrigued, Ryan sought out those with the condition through internet message boards and The British Synaesthesia Association. He was inundated with replies.

“I was really surprised by how open people were – they wanted to share their experiences. They were incredibly supportive because they want more awareness. There might be thousands of people out there who have synaesthesia, people going through their lives just thinking this is absolutely normal.

“What is nice is that people with synaesthesia do not see themselves as sufferers – they see it as a gift. It affects them day-to-day but they aren’t looking for drugs or anything, they celebrate it. They call themselves synaesthetes – they claim that identity.”

With set designer Sarah Parker, Ryan shot a series of numbers based on different people’s experiences with the condition.

“My own work explores science and technology and so bringing that into a different context was nice. It was an exploration of other people’s experiences and imaginations rather than just my own.”

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Three inspired by Rebekah Paulovich-Boucly who sees three as a “yellowy, warm blue, (not turquoise!) that doesn’t have too much magneta in it. It’s got texture and it’s a bit porous. The three is super pliable. And it’s BREATHLESS!”

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Zero inspired by James Wannerton who tastes zero as “blue Bic biro ink.”

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One inspired by Terrie Daniel who sees one as “black, bold, with a textured backdrop.”

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Four inspired by Rebekah Paulovich-Boucly who sees four as “luminous and beautiful with a hint of green. Smoothly textured, kind of like matte-finished aluminium. It’s outgoing and friendly. I LOVE the four. Honestly have always looked forward to being 44 just for the beautiful colours.”