Award-winning photographer Jon Tonks talks to Genesis about his highly acclaimed series ‘Empire’

Gnome Garden, Falkland Islands. Image © Jon Tonks, from the series 'Empire'.

Double fleeced sheep, Falkland Islands. Image © Jon Tonks, from the series 'Empire'.

Albatross, Tristan De Cunha. Image © Jon Tonks from the series 'Empire'

Long Island Farm, Falklands Islands. Image © Jon Tonks from the series 'Empire'

Jon Tonks is a multi-award-winning British photographer from the West Midlands. Following a three year course in Design in Leeds, Jon turned to photography following a short stint as for a newspaper network in the Midlands which he left to pursue an MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication.

Tonks’ series ‘Empire’ is an exploration into life on four overseas territories of the United Kingdom; Ascention Island, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland islands. Tonks’ photographs explore the people, the landscapes and the traces of the past which are embedded in each territory, offering a window into the communities and lifestyles that despite the distance, remain very firmly British.

Empire took six years, 400 rolls of film, 24 flights and 32 days at sea to complete. The making of Tonks’ award-winning book of the same title, which accompanies his exhibition at MAC Birmingham can also be seen at an associated event at The Library of Birmingham, charting the development of the project – right from his contact sheets to the finished publication.

The touring photographic exhibition of Jon Tonks’ Empire has been co-produced by Mac Birmingham, the Library of Birmingham, Ffotogallery, Grain Photography Hub and Impressions Gallery.
We spoke to Jon live on Twitter to find out more about the four islands which he photographed and the challenges and rewards of producing the series…

Genesisimaging: Hi Jon, are you ready to discuss Empire?

Jon_Tonks: I am indeed! I am sat here ready…

Genesisimaging: Fantastic! Let’s begin…

Genesisimaging: What drew you to photographing the four British Outposts featured in Empire?

Jon_Tonks: Okay – It was a project that started during my MA in photojournalism at LCC when I was drawn to Ascension Island…

Jon_Tonks: I was interested in whether you could have a real community on an island where you couldn’t have a citizenship.

Jon_Tonks:. I then looked into St Helena (where most of Ascension’s population is from), and this began the expansion of the project.

Genesisimaging: That’s really interesting about the island’s citizenship…

Genesisimaging: How extensive was your research on each of the four locations before you arrived?

Jon_Tonks: I didn’t do a huge amount. Enough to understand the history, but I found I learnt far more from being on the ground.

Jon_Tonks: I planned a good week’s worth of recce time on each island before taking too many pictures, which helped me learn a lot.

Genesisimaging: What would you say was the biggest surprise for you, during your time on the four islands?

Jon_Tonks: – I think travelling 7 days on a ship from Cape Town, to be greeted by a British bobby checking passports. #Tristandacunha.

Jon_Tonks: – I knew it was coming too, but I was still amazed by it!

Genesisimaging: Speaking of travel… what was the most challenging journey for you and why?

Genesisimaging: We heard you travelled via military outposts, low-lit airstrips and the last working royal mail ship…

Jon_Tonks: indeed I did… the Royal Mail Ship is an experience in itself…

Jon_Tonks: The most challenging journey was most probably to Tristan da Cunha; 7 days is a long time sailing at 5 knots with not much on the horizon…

Genesisimaging: We can only imagine!

Genesisimaging: Who, of the many people who you encountered, on your journey was a particular highlight to meet?

Jon_Tonks: Can I say a 180 year old tortoise called Jonathan?

Jon_Tonks: Or maybe this double-fleeced sheep… Very patient when sitting for a portrait!

Double fleeced sheep, Falkland Islands. Image © Jon Tonks, from the series 'Empire'.

Double fleeced sheep, Falkland Islands. Image © Jon Tonks, from the series ‘Empire’.

Genesisimaging: Fantastic answer! How difficult was it to produce the series without external funding?

Jon_Tonks: It was a case of saving up as I went along, but it was a slow project so there was never any pressure on time.

Genesisimaging: And is there anything that in hindsight you wish you knew when you began the series six years ago?

Jon_Tonks: Plenty.

Jon_Tonks: Although it may have turned into a different project if I knew…

Genesisimaging: Very true!

Jon_Tonks: I think perhaps just to stick to my own style of working, not creating what I think people want to see…

Genesisimaging: What would be the top three things you wish you’d have known?

Jon_Tonks: Top 3? 1. Take seasickness tablets BEFORE getting on the ship…

Jon_Tonks: 2. Take a waterproof peli case from the start. (I very nearly learned this the hard way).

Jon_Tonks: 3. Don’t think that just because there is only one bar on Tristan da Cunha that you will make it through the pub crawl…

Genesisimaging: Brilliant answers! Let’s talk about your touring exhibition…

Jon_Tonks: Fire away!

Genesisimaging: How do you think ‘Empire’ is perceived differently as an exhibition (Tonks’ series ‘Empire’ is currently on show at Mac Birmingham until January 4th, after which it will tour to Ffotogallery in Cardiff and Impressions Gallery in Bradford)

Jon_Tonks: It was an interesting task getting the stories across as an exhibition…

Jon_Tonks: I tried to get as much text on walls as possible to accompany the images, without it taking over the show.

Jon_Tonks: But it’s hard to know whether the viewer goes away with the same impression as the book.

Jon_Tonks: . The idea was always to give the audience a few new stories about unknown places to go away with.

Genesisimaging: Great. The Library of Birmingham currently has a behind-the-scenes display charting the production of your publication…

Genesisimaging: Can you tell us what the most challenging aspect of producing the book was?

Jon_Tonks: Probably making the final edit. Narrowing down to 20 images per island was tough work… I was stuck at 30 or so for a while!

Genesisimaging: Was there a specific reason why you chose to include 20 from each?

Jon_Tonks: 80 seemed like a good number altogether. Enough to tell the story, but without the book being enormous!

Genesisimaging: And our last question… What has, so far, been the highlight of your career?

Jon_Tonks: It would have to be working with Mark Foxwell and Genesis Imaging on framing for the show I think…

Jon_Tonks: Is that the right answer?

Genesisimaging: haha, thanks Jon 😉

Jon_Tonks: – in all seriousness, I think just seeing the project through to the final product/book has been very satisfying…

Genesisimaging: We can imagine – it’s a fantastic achievement. Thank you for your insightful answers this afternoon – unfortunately that’s all we have time for!

Jon_Tonks: – My pleasure, it’s been fun!

See Jon Tonks’ must-see exhibition ‘Empire’ at MAC Birmingham until January 4th :

macbirmingham.co.uk/exhibition/empire

Find out more about Jon’s work and practice at jontonks.com

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