Empire: A Personal History of British Dominion

South Atlantic islands pop quiz:

  1. Which island was used by NASA in the 1970s to simulate the surface of the moon?
  2. Which island is home to the only law enforcement official for 1,750 miles in any direction?
  3. Which island has approximately 200 sheep for every person?
  4. Which island, though home to only 3,800 people, is the seat of a representative for the British monarch and a separate French honorary counsel?

Choose from the following: Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Falkland Islands  

While you might not know the answers to any of these questions, British documentary photographer Jon Tonks found out about these things and so much more in the process of making his book, Empire. Tonks spent up to a month at a time in each territory, traveling 60,000 miles around the Atlantic via military outposts, low-lit airstrips and a long voyage aboard the last working Royal Mail Ship. Some 400 rolls of film, 24 flights and 32 days at sea later, the resulting work creates an insight into these distant places that resonate with a sense of Britishness which is remarkably recognizable yet inescapably strange.

Tonks has photographed the people, the landscapes and the traces of the past embedded within each territory. From the Margaret Thatcher memorials on the Falklands, to shipwrecked, disintegrating, 19th-century guano barques, Tonks' lens seems to have dug into every square inch these four islands had to offer. But through the short accompanying texts, which combine history and anecdote, Tonks also tells the human stories scattered across these remote and remarkable islands.

From the cover of the book, we sense Tonks' playful, inquisitive nature. While Tonks remains respectful and sympathetic of his subjects throughout his journey — and the book really does bring us into the feeling of Tonks' many miles traveled — it is hard not to smile when we're told that Tristan da Cunha's police officer has been on the job for 22 years but has yet to make an arrest (the answer to question 2 on the quiz, by the way). 

The book balances landscapes with portraits, maps with finely etched faces and funny factoids with a real sense of heart. In the afterword, Tonks tells us that he had to visit St Helena a second time to finish his project. He calls this unexpected return "a valuable experience" as he had the chance to revisit "familiar faces from the original trip". By the end, Tonks' warmth and connection with his subjects becomes as clear as his more obvious humor.

Some travel for the experience, others for the novelty, still others for the story. Happily for us, Tonks managed to do all three.

—Alexander Strecker

EMPIRE by Jon Tonks
Publisher: Dewi Lewis Publishing
Hardcover: 188 pages

Editor's note: We first met Jon Tonks when he attended LensCulture Fotofest Paris. We're happy to see that he succeeded in publishing his project.