Photographer Jon Tonks investigates four far-flung outposts where the British empire lives on – at least in spirit
British documentary photographer Jon Tonks spent five years and travelled around 50,000 miles to make Empire, a book about four small far-flung territories that remain under British rule as the great imperialist project fades further into history. His travels took him to Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island, St Helena and, inevitably, the Falkland Islands, where it dawned on him, as he recently told Time magazine, that the 1982 war was like “a village being invaded by a country”.
Empire is a book about what remains, the often absurd traces of an older kind of Britishness that linger in these in-between, out-of-the-way territories, but it also evokes the everyday oddness of life there. Ascension Island, a volcanic rock roughly midway between Africa and South America, was a strategically important refuelling point for the British in the second world war. It is now home to around 880 people and has its own airstrip. Tristan da Cunha can only be reached by boat and has one major settlement, the grandly named Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, where its 264 residents live in the shadow of a volcano that last erupted in 1961. In one intriguing shot, two marooned lifeboats sit halfway up the mountain, having been deposited there by a storm. It seems a fragile place in more ways than one.
Tonk mixes portraiture and documentary to show how important post-colonial tradition is to the survival of these communities and how their adherence to a kind of old-fashioned Britishness can make them seem culturally as well as geographically isolated in our increasingly globalised world. On the cover, sheep clutter around a fluttering union jack in a field on the Falklands in an image that might have been made on the coast of Northern Ireland. It is a visual metaphor for the entire project, which hovers constantly between the everyday and the symbolic.
Throughout, residents pose in their uniforms – firemen, a heavily armed policeman, the governor of the Falklands in his official regalia – as if to emphasise their sense of belonging to Queen and country. If the Falklands seems to be the most British of all these territories, Ascension Island is the least, its history altered not by empire, but by the scientific intervention of Charles Darwin, who helped bring fresh water to an island devoid of the same though the elaborate creation of an artificial “cloud forest”.
The accompanying text is a mixture of historical fact and anecdote and further reflects Tonks’s patient curiosity and attention to detail. Having spent a month in each territory, and over a month at sea getting to them, he shot around 400 rolls of film in the making of Empire. It was worth it to come up with this often surprising and strangely melancholy meditation on belonging and identity, and the creation of an exaggerated Britishness in places that are anything but.