Jon Tonks Explores The Far Reaches of the British Empire

By Sabine Mirlesse

© Jon Tonks
Senior officer and part-time cook Linda Fuller, Jamestown Prison, St. Helena.

A tortoise named Jonathan who is rumored to have met every governor of St. Helena since arriving on the island in 1882. A prison that from time to time serves as a video shop. A lollipopseller awarded a Badge of Honor for maintaining calm under duress. A police officer who has been on duty for 22 years without making an arrest, yet serves as the only law enforcement officer for a territory of 1750 square miles. 

These are just some of the people, places and things indexed in Jon Tonks’ book Empire (Dewi Lewis). A catalogue of the remaining British colonies, Tonks’ book provides a glimpse, with typical British humor, of the characters you might come across if you washed ashore from a shipwreck on St. Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha or the Falkland Islands. 

Tonks began the project as a student pursuing his MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication. He’d been working as a staff photographer at a Birmingham newspaper when he realized he’d “just had enough” and took out a loan to go back to school. 

“As part of the course, we were required to create a body of work,” Tonks tells PDN. “I’d always wanted my project to have a bit of a British theme to it. There was a certain sense of humor I felt I could work with, and find a balance between that and more serious documentary work. I wanted to create a body of work that represented this sort of British-ness.” 

The idea for Empire grew from a desire to leave home and explore; it was the same lust for travel that had inspired Tonks to become a photographer in the first place. Wanting to leave England yet also wanting a British-themed subject, Tonks started looking into the remaining bits of the British Empire: the islands in the middle of nowhere to which England clings. Tonks realized that, aside from the Falkland Islands, he really had no clue what any of them looked like. Ascension Island was the first to intrigue him. Although the tiny island in the middle of the southern Atlantic is British, it has a “sort of co-owned relationship with the US, including a military base,” for strategic reasons, he explains. The people who live there have no right of abode, meaning that even if they were born there, they have no legal right to live on the island, only to work. 

“I wondered what that community would look like,” Tonks recalls. “I decided to fly out and spend a month investigating to see what would happen.” 

Tonks’s deadpan humor lends an inviting informality to the formally composed, medium-format images. “It was quite a fine balance I found,” Tonks says. “I don’t take myself too seriously, but at the same time it was always important that none of the imagery was derogatory towards anybody. I think if you enjoy the work you see, you ultimately absorb it better as well.” 

Tonks felt the book would be stronger with captions. “For me it was always really important that each image had a good story with it,” he says. “Otherwise it’s just a book of pictures.” His editing process centered on matching strong images with equally strong tales, and if one side were lacking he would often cut the image from the book. 

Tonks funded the project “by hook or by crook.” He felt he had to “go for it” even if that meant going further into debt after getting the loan for his MA, so he paid for his first trip to Ascension Island with money he made from any commercial gigs he could get his hands on, including weddings, and put the rest on credit cards. The Sunday Times later bought his images from Tristan da Cunha, which helped pay for that trip. While on St. Helena, he brokered gigs photographing all of the islands’ bars and social venues for the local tourist board in exchange for housing for the eight days he would be there.

After entering some of the work in the Association of Photographers Awards, he began a conversation with publisher Dewi Lewis, who was one of the awards judges. They exchanged PDFs for about a year, Tonks says, then went into production. “I paid for the book. I’m not in this to make money, am I?” he laughs while explaining that Kickstarter or other crowdfunding options held little appeal for him. Paying for production out of his own pocket gave him a great deal of control over the design of the final object. 

While editing the book, Tonks was startled to check his email one day and find a message from photographer Martin Parr. “I think he was intrigued about how I’d gotten into these different places, and as it happens I live in Bath and he lives in Bristol, so I just drove over and had a cup of tea and explained it all. He’s been really wonderful and open about offering advice.” 

The book sold out its first print run, prompting a second printing due to be released this month. But Tonks seems to keep things in perspective. He says he’d be most “chuffed if in a hundred years somebody pulls it out of the library somewhere and it gets used as a reference point.”

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