PHOTOBOOK REVIEWS, INTERVIEWS AND WRITE-UPS
ALONG WITH THE LATEST PHOTO-EYE NEWS

Social Media

Book Review: Empire


Book Review Empire By Jon Tonks Reviewed by Colin Pantall St Helena is the island in the middle of the Atlantic where Napoleon was exiled to. The Falklands are the islands in the middle of the Atlantic (West Side) over which a war was fought in 1981. Ascension Island is the island in the middle of the Atlantic where British planes refuelled on the way to the Falkland Islands in that same war. And Tristan de Cunha? Well, it rhymes with tuna and is not to be confused with Tierra del Fuego.

Empire. By Jon Tonks.
Dewi Lewis, 2013.
 
Empire
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Empire 
By Jon Tonks

$48.00
Dewi Lewis, 2013. 188 pp., 85 color illustrations, 10x7¾".


St Helena is the island in the middle of the Atlantic where Napoleon was exiled to. The Falklands are the islands in the middle of the Atlantic (West Side) over which a war was fought in 1981. Ascension Island is the island in the middle of the Atlantic where British planes refuelled on the way to the Falkland Islands in that same war. And Tristan de Cunha? Well, it rhymes with tuna and is not to be confused with Tierra del Fuego. My guess is it’s an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic where not a lot happens.

I flick open an atlas, get out a magnifying glass and my thoughts are confirmed. All these places are tiny dots in the ocean that are isolated and unheard of. They’re all British though and they’re all populated. And that’s where Jon Tonks’ Empire comes in; a lovely book that looks at the geography, customs and people of these small islands.

The Empire theme is apparent in the layout of the book. Maps, facts and figures are laid out with a graphic nod to an imperial tradition, but the delight of the book lies in the pictures and the stories they tell.


Empire. By Jon Tonks. Dewi Lewis, 2013.
Empire. By Jon Tonks. Dewi Lewis, 2013.

Tristan da Cunha we learn is a volcanic island where ‘…land is communal and livestock is proportionately divided amongst the community.’ The highpoint of Tristan da Cunha’s history is the solution to the lonely year of 1827 when ‘…Tristan’s small population included five lonely bachelors. This situation required the arrangement of an extraordinary long-distance blind date – a letter was sent to St Helena to persuade five women to sail to Tristan da Cunha where the promise of matrimony awaited. Before their arrival, the five bachelors picked a number between one and five and used this method to decide their bride-to-be according to the order they disembarked the ship.’

There is still a problem finding a partner and if you do find a partner the next problem is finding a house. If you want your own house you have to build it. But there is a bar, a school, a supermarket, a café, two churches and, as one great picture shows, a couple of lifeboats washed up by a storm onto the volcanic slopes of a Tristan Cliffside.

Empire. By Jon Tonks. Dewi Lewis, 2013.

Bleak volcanic landscapes also figure in the St Helena section. One picture shows Jamestown, St Helena’s capital, lodged in a valley between two volcanic slopes. But then we see the people of the island at the annual St Helena Day festival lining up to watch community floats pass by and it all seems incredibly natural if a little slow-paced. It’s a pace exemplified by a typical St Helena news report: ‘On Thursday night while police were on patrol in the St Pauls’ area, a dog was seen chasing passing vehicles. The owner will be traced and will be dealt with accordingly.’

Ascension Island is even more rocky and the pictures from here focus on the military side of empire; the island is essentially a British airforce base as shown in a picture of a block of Royal Air Force housing carved into a chocolate brown slab of volcanic rock. Here things aren’t quite so cosy; inhabitants don’t have right of abode even if born on the island and the part the island plays in both military and civilian communications (it’s the site of one of the five GPS ground antenna) give it a sinister edge.

Empire. By Jon Tonks. Dewi Lewis, 2013.
Empire. By Jon Tonks. Dewi Lewis, 2013.

Alien landscapes, scenes of community and traces of empire are the hallmarks of Tonks’ book. On the Falkland Islands, we see a cluster of sheep gathered around a Union Jack, a street named Thatcher Drive and the Governor of the Falkland Islands in full colonial regalia.

But the attraction of the book lies not so much in the traces of British presence apparent on the islands, but in the pictures of the more ordinary people who live there; the teenage beauty queen on Ascension Island, the church-goers on St Helena and the potato farmers of Tristan da Cunha all have a charm to them. These pictures focus on the community spirit necessary for living in some of the most isolated places in the world. So Empire is not a grim book. We don’t see the loneliness, depression or confinement of distant island living, but that is not important. It’s a visual treat of a book that takes you into the geographic mindset of these islands and is a beautiful and touching depiction of places that, despite being in the middle of nowhere, still encapsulate something of what it takes to make a community (dark side not included).—COLIN PANTALL

Selected as a Best Book of 2013 by:
Rob Hornstra
Martin Parr


COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport.http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

No comments:

Post a Comment