The Far Reaches
documentary work. I wanted to create a
body of work that represented this sort of
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
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
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT:
Plantation House, the
governor’s residence, St.
Helena; Senior officer and
part-time cook Linda Fuller,
Jamestown Prison, St.
Helena; Calshot Harbour,
which offers the only way on
or off Tristan da Cunha, is
too small for ships to dock.