Jon Tonks' elegiac portraits of the decaying final outposts of British Overseas Territories caught the eye of Martin Parr
For six years, Bath-based photographer Jon Tonks worked on a long-term personal project, culminating in the book Empire, published in December 2013 by Dewi Lewis. He travelled to a series of remote British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic Ocean, which included St Helena, Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands, documenting the people and places from these last remaining pockets of the empire.
“On each of the islands, I would spend the first week not taking many pictures, discovering who and what was most interesting, and getting to know people so they would understand why I was there,” he says. “This was particularly important on Tristan da Cunha, a remote British territory in the South Atlantic with a population of 259. They were a little shy and wary of random people turning up on their island with a camera.”
Tonks would drive around the islands looking for locations to shoot, and arranged times to take people’s portraits. Yet within this self-imposed structure, he also allowed himself to record what he stumbled across by chance. “Studying photojournalism [at the London College of Communication, following an undergraduate degree in product design] taught me that the story behind each picture should be as interesting as the image itself. I was keen to blend elements of historic importance with elements of humour when they arose. This maintained my interest, and hopefully the viewers’ too.”
Nominated as ‘One to Watch’ by Martin Parr, who has worked with Dewi Lewis on books for the past 25 years, Tonks has built up a loyal following with editorial clients, including Time, Monocle and the weekend supplements of The Sunday Times, The Guardian, FT and The Telegraph, and has figured in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, Magenta’s Flash Forward and the Terry O’Neill award. And for his self-initiated assignment, he has produced a project that was “crying out to be done”, says Parr. “Spending many weeks on Tristan da Cunha and St Helena, Tonks has shot a series that evokes the… reality of these islands. He weaves these photographs together with the stories that surround them in his compelling book.”
Find more of Jon’s work here.
First published in the January 2014 issue. You can buy this issue here.