The Far Reaches
In his long-term documentary project, Jon Tonks surveys
the last vestiges of the British Empire—and the people,
places and things that define it—with wit and charm.
BY SABINE MIRLESSE
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 lollipop-seller 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
After a month or two, Choi returned to the work and determined
that, given the small number of images, careful editing would be
key. He wanted to focus on his mother’s grief. He also knew that
he didn’t want “Umma” to become a presentation of a traditional
Korean funeral. As such, Choi explains that he excised images that
were “too descriptive,” instead seeking to highlight the “universal
language” of loss.
Choi took the work to the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2013,
held in Portland, Oregon. He was able to get the series in front
of several curators, editors and publishers for valuable feedback,
something that often doesn’t happen in small group shows. Choi
was also was elated at the opportunity to interact and compare
work with his photography peers in the U.S.
Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, which hosted Photolucida’s closing
reception, caught Choi’s eye. Impressed by the esthetics of the space
and the quality of the art they were showing, he made a formal
submission. Blue Sky’s exhibition committee had already noted
his work during the event’s Portfolio Walk and eagerly accepted
his application. “We have a rolling online submission process for
exhibitions,” explains Blue Sky’s executive director Todd Tubutis,
“so it is helpful to the committee when someone has seen an artist’s
prints in person and can attest to their quality.” “Umma” and another
of Choi’s series, “Meji” (photographs of burned and cropped fields in
a rural village), are showing this month at the gallery.
Given that “Umma” was shot and edited in 2011 but is only now
finding a wider audience, Choi has had plenty of time to move past
his initial inner conflicts with the work and see it in a new light.
He credits this project with having pointed him in a new direction
as an artist. “I learned that I should face things uncomfortable and
unbearable,” he says. “This attitude and sincerity amplified my
voice in the work.”
The pain that surrounded the creation of the images has been
replaced with a certainty that his grandmother’s spirit was working
through him. Eventually he worked up the courage to invite his
family to see an exhibition of “Umma.” “I was afraid that it could
hurt my mother’s heart,” Choi says. “She slowly walked around the
gallery and looked into each piece, and said only one thing: ‘Look at
the wrinkles on my face!’”
Choi grew as an artist while creating “Umma,” he says. “I learned that I should
face things uncomfortable and unbearable.”
A gathering of sheep, Long Island Farm, East Falkland. Farmland on the
Falkland Islands extends to well over 3,861 square miles, and is home to
approximately 600,000 sheep.