Birmingham photographer in first solo exhibition

mac debut as Empire explores British outposts.

The monarchy, Darwin, Napoleon Bonaparte, slavery – the backdrop to an intriguing new solo exhibition by Sutton Coldfield born, multi-award winning, photographer and photojournalist Jon Tonks.

Empire is a fascinating journey, six years in the making, exploring life on four remote British overseas territories of the United Kingdom; Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands. Tonks photographed the people, the landscapes and the traces of the past embedded in each territory, offering a window into the communities and their lifestyles that remain very firmly British. The exhibition runs from Saturday 18yh October 2014 to Sunday 4yh January 2015 at mac birmingham and is co-produced by mac, The Library of Birmingham, Ffotogallery, Cardiff, GRAIN and Impressions Gallery, Bradford.

Tonks spent up to a month at a time in each territory, (population totalling 7,866, area totalling 4,818.8 sq metres) travelling 60,000 miles around the South Atlantic via military outposts, low lit airstrips and a long voyage aboard the last working Royal Mail Ship. He used 400 rolls of film, endured 24 flights and 32 days at sea.

In his foreword for Empire, the award winning book published by Dewi Lewis, which accompanies the exhibition, Journalist, Christopher Lord, said: “Whether the islands are seen as relics of colonial buccaneering or a merry time capsule of ‘Britishness’ Tonks’ portraits allow us to reckon with the personal stories of those who live in the South Atlantic beyond the political or historical implications of their existence. These images are a visual narrative of a journey to forgotten communities in the ocean and a salute to the tenacious people who survive within them.”

Jon Tonks added: “Through Empire, I wanted audiences to learn a little bit more about the places, the people and the history that shapes each island. Revealing the strong links to Britain, some more visible than others (Union Jack flags, nativity plays, and a gnome garden) helps to reduce the obvious distance in geography, enabling audiences to engage and find similarities. Unlike mainland Britain each island boasts a low crime and divorce rate and doors remain unlocked. Empire has been a remarkable adventure, and an opportunity for me to chronicle the lives and stories of forgotten communities.”

With the recent vote on Scottish independence not yet a distant memory, we find, through Tonks’ exhibition that a Scotsman, Corporal Glass was one of the first inhabitants on the island of Tristan da Cunha. With only seven surnames on the island, divided between 259 people, many can trace their DNA back to Glass. St Helena’s mix of ethnicities, which are evident within the images can be traced back to a population of newly liberated people, slaves freed and transported in the 1800s slave ships were intercepted.

St Helena became the final resting place for Napoleon Bonaparte following his surrender after the Battle of Waterloo. The lush landscape images of Ascension Island hark back to Charles Darwin’s ‘exploration of strange new worlds’. He imported plants and trees from across the world, which in turn produced more rainfall on the island, improving the fertility of the land and producing the world’s largest cloud forest. The lush landscape can be seen in the image entitled: Breakneck Valley, Green Mountain.

Craig Ashley, mac birmingham Visual Arts Producer and co-curator of Empire said: “This is an important body of work and a considerable undertaking. Jon Tonks has dedicated the past six years to making a collection of pictures that reflect the uniqueness of these four islands whilst capturing familiar traits that are undeniably British. The Royal Mail post boxes, the police uniform, the school nativity – these subjects and many more clearly resonate with life on the British mainland, but made uncanny by the significant distance which separates us from the islands’ inhabitants. We are pleased to be working with our partners to bring this important exhibition to audiences across the UK.”

Pete James, Curator of Photography Collections at tthe Library of Birmingham commented: “Martin Parr hailed Jon Tonks’ book Empire as one of the photobooks of the year in 2013. We are therefore delighted to support the work of this local photographer by presenting a unique display, which charts the making of this book – from contact sheets to finished publication – alongside our role as co-producers of the exhibition at mac. The Library of Birmingham is also delighted to be acquiring works from the exhibition to add to its nationally and internationally significant photo collections.”

The exhibition is accompanied by Empire, Tonks’ first book released in 2013. It was nominated by Martin Parr as one of his best books of 2013. Copies of Empire are available to purchase at Sales and Information at mac for £35.

Editioned prints from the exhibition can be purchased via James Hyman Gallery at