Jon Tonks/Christopher Lord: The Men Who Would Be King
If you have a hard time waiting for the next installment of the “White Lotus” anthology series, it may be time to take a pause to explore another equally peculiar tale told by Christopher Lord and illustrated in powerful photographs by Jon Tonks that unfolds on the archipelago of Vanuatu in the South Pacific in a new monograph titled The Men Who Would Be King. It is a tale with origins in the 17th century when 300 sailors from a Portuguese ship landed in the islands of Vanuatu in an effort to establish a colony. After 35 days, they left in disarray and the local islanders were not bothered by Western colonizers for another 168 years. But their brief presence generated a prophecy among some communities in the islands that continues to this day. The prophecy predicts that a messiah will come to re-instate a pre-colonial way of life in Vanuatu and return things to the pristine state that preceded imperial and colonial interference. This messiah is said to come from a distant land bringing health and prosperity to the islands.
Tonks and Lord have documented the stories of a series of peculiar and disparate array of men who have found their way to Vanuatu in hopes of cashing in on the benefits of the prophecy by even assuming the title of King. Another aspect of this prophecy revolves around the array of goods and benefits that will accompany this messianic figure thereby generating the label of “cargo cultists” among the believers. But history and fate have intervened in this unusual tale in that the presence of the American army during World War II served to add credence to the prophecy as wartime materiel and soldiers from afar descended upon the islands at the time. Even a documentary film maker who showed up in recent years bearing a strange assortment of gifts to dispense was thought to be the incarnation of the prophecy despite his khakis and baseball cap.
The book can be purchased here.
Many of these unusual figures as well as the islands of Vanuatu are captured in exquisite portraits and landscapes by the camera of Jon Tonks. His photos bring to life the strange contradictions that are outlined in the text. One can readily visualize the remote archipelago with honest portraits of both the local populace as well as the visitors including Mormon missionaries, documentary filmmakers, would-be Kings in all their finery or in simple thongs. This is a diverse parade of strange players in a South Pacific fantasy that is all too real.
These are tales as wily as any fiction; the claimant to a tropical throne living in exile in Nice, the American filmmaker wandering between villages handing out necklaces with his own face on them. Sometimes they turn violent: the ageing gunmaker who led an armed insurgency in the jungle, the Las Vegas millionaires who fashioned their own messiah in a bid to carve out a libertarian paradise in the South Seas. The book asks why this old explorers’ dream about deified white men has endured in the Western imagination, through our films and literature, and examines the long shadow it casts into our own time.
As Lord writes in his introduction to the book, “Ours is not a study of the complex firmament of mythos and oral traditions that crisscross Vanuatu. It is a series of encounters, between 2014 and 2018, with the labyrinthine tales that underpin those beliefs and the myriad foreigners who get lost in them. If there is any anthropology here, it is of an idea, an old dream, that has persisted since a time when the responsibility of the world was thought to rest on European and American shoulders. What was once called ‘The White Man’s Burden’ …. This is a story about storytelling—the ones we tell ourselves about who we are and our place in the world. The stories, one might say, that we live by.”
Jon Tonks is a British photographer whose work focuses on telling stories about lives shaped by history and geography – he has published two books that tell stories around the legacy of colonial history, often in the remote corners of the world.
His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, The Guardian Saturday, The Sunday Times Magazine, the British Journal of Photography and more. Now represented by the Photographers’ Gallery in London, his work has been exhibited internationally and held in a number of private collections, including The Hyman Collection of British photography, the Martin Parr Foundation, Stanford University and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Texas.
Christopher Lord is a writer, editor, and radio correspondent, and currently a broadcast journalist for the BBC, based in London. Previously based in Turkey and the Middle East for eight years, Lord has reported from more than 40 countries for print and radio, and written across a number of titles on current affairs and contemporary art. He has edited or contributed essays to books published by Mousse, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Gestalten and Booth-Clibborn Editions.
The book can be ordered via the following link: https://www.jontonks.com/the-men-who-would-be-king/
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