On show at Format – Jon Tonks’ Cargo

JT 005
JT 005

Fascinated by the myths and rituals of Vanuatu’s ‘Cargo Cults’, Jon Tonks shot a project now going on show in Derby

On the eve of the First World War, the British Empire accounted for over 23 percent of the world’s population: some 412 million people spread across nearly a quarter of Earth’s land area. At its very furthest reaches, the map of the Empire showed what looked like a scattering of tiny dots on the great blue expanse of the Pacific. Named Vanuatu, they make up a one-nation archipelago of more than 80 islands stretching across 800 miles of the South Seas. Located more than a thousand miles northeast of Australia, it has a population of less than 300,000 people.

It’s a place few Britons have heard of but in Vanuatu, independent since 1980, the idea of ‘Britishness’ has weaved itself into the islanders’ ancestral, and even spiritual, beliefs. “Stories flourish in isolation,” says Christopher Lord, the Istanbul Bureau Chief for Monocle magazine, who has been collaborating with photographer Jon Tonks since the pair worked together on a story in Algeria as the Arab Spring was erupting.

The island country has long been a source of fascination for 35-year-old Tonks, who spoke about it with BJP for our March 2017 issue. He began this ongoing project, Cargo, shortly after the conclusion of his acclaimed Empire series, which explored the far-flung remnants of British colonialism in the South Atlantic. When we meet in a pub near his home in Bath, Tonks explains that his motivation for Cargo is to “explore belief systems, the country’s progress in the 21st century and the wider phenomena being conjured around them”.

Tonks and Lord went to Vanuatu after hearing about the legend of, and movement surrounding, John Frum (sometimes called John Brum, Jon Frum or John From) and his significance for the ‘Cargo Cults’ of the island of Tanna. The work looks at not just the geography and the people of the island, but also its history and customs – exploring how, in this remote former fiefdom, Anglo- American traits and cultural figures have been assimilated in strange and unpredictable ways.

The John Frum movement can be traced back to the early 1940s, when 300,000 US troops were stationed in Vanuatu during the Second World War, bringing with them huge amounts of supplies (or ‘cargo’). After the war and the departure of the Americans, followers of John Frum – the name is thought to be a corruption of “John from (America)” – built symbolic landing strips to encourage US aircraft to land and return with their ‘cargo’.

“‘Cargo Cults’ were first documented by missionaries at the end of the 19th century, when much of the Pacific was being converted to Christianity,” Tonks says. “By the world wars, a belief had developed amongst islanders in Vanuatu – what was then called the New Hebrides – about a man from a distant land who would one day return to reinstate their traditional way of life and give them their rightful wealth: the cargo.”

Over time the movement developed its own rituals, a (non-violent) ‘army’ and a political party that has opposed the centralisation of government in Vanuatu. Celebrating its 50th anniversary on 15 February – John Frum Day – in 2007, its then leader, Chief Isaak Wan Nikiau, said that the mythical figure was “our God, our Jesus”, who would eventually return. It was one such John Frum Day that first drew Tonks to the island to photograph the movement’s parades.

“The villagers march around with bamboo sticks for guns, imitating American GIs,” he says. “It’s a ceremony designed to emulate the American presence during the Second World War. They felt that if they recreated the conditions in which Frum first experienced Vanuatu, then he will appear again.

“The stories contained in Cargo,” says Tonks, “introduce these beliefs, which are still practised today: the village that says Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was born of a mountain; another that believes the Messiah is an American GI called John, with followers that still parade through the streets with their ‘guns’ and Star-Spangled Banners; an independence movement that venerates a dissolute French adventurer as its king.”

But, more than the people of Vanuatu, Tonks and Lord saw the crux of this project as primarily about the characters the island attracts from the outside. “As we continued to research the diversity of the so-called ‘Cargo’ beliefs, we found these stories of people – mostly Europeans and Americans – being drawn to the islands by the Cargo movements and sometimes these ended up as strange, cautionary or unsavoury tales,” Lord says.

“We’ve tried to understand why those people would give up a proportion of their life to ingratiate themselves into these Cargo narratives. What is it they’re looking for? This begs the question of who the so-called ‘Cargo cultists’ are – is it the Tannese people scanning the horizon for returning cargo, or is it those foreigners heading to the South Pacific in search of something miraculous?”

Like his earlier work for Empire, Tonks shot Cargo in square format, capturing portraits of the inhabitants who have grown up in the islands as well as those – of ambiguous motives – who come to visit from Europe and America. He carefully orientates each figure in their environment, detailing how they fit into such surroundings – or not, as the case may be. The eye for detail that elevated Empire is evident here too, but a newer, more metaphorical inquiry is also at play. Read more.