Photographer Todd Henry titled his recent portrait series Fofonga ‘oe kau fakafoki. If you don’t speak Tongan, this translates into English as “the faces of those who have returned”. The series documents people of Tongan heritage who have been deported from either the USA, New Zealand, or Australia and sent back to Tonga. All of the people in Todd’s series were born in Tonga, but most have been raised overseas away from the Tongan culture, and have been sent back with virtually no knowledge of the way of life or language.
“It’s a strange and interesting concept because according to ethnicity and nationality they are Tongan, but culturally they are American, Kiwi, or Australian. But they can never go back to those places that they once called home,” Todd explains.
It was in 2011 when Todd met an American deportee named ‘Ila. ‘Ila was working in a cafe and asked Todd where he was from, as he noticed Todd’s American accent. He soon became acquainted with ‘Ila’s story, and after hearing the troubles he faced when he was deported, Todd started documenting those who had gone through a similar experience. “Once a deportee is sent back to Tonga they have a lot of complex issues to navigate from finding a place to live, learning the language, finding work, and a sense of belonging in a place that is supposed to be their home. Then there is also the negative stigma that they face, which often prevents them from having a real second chance to live a life that isn’t associated with criminal activities.”
As Todd got to know more people in Tonga’s deportee community he realised he’d found a story that needed to be told. He said this wasn’t to glorify a “gangster lifestyle”, but to highlight the unique issues they face, essentially as foreigners in their own native country.
For awhile now, Todd has been shooting for Vice New Zealand, and in 2018 he pitched the story to them with the notion of going to Tonga with a journalist to produce a piece of writing to go with the portraits. What resulted was a team of eight heading to Tonga, and a short film produced called Gangsters in Paradise – Deportees of Tonga. “The film launched in early February and has been pretty popular already! I shot all of the portraits in this series during the time we were in Tonga to film the doco. It was such a fun project to work on and I want to do more like it in the future. I wouldn’t have been able to make a film like this happen without the Vice NZ team. They were amazing to work with.”
The entire Fofonga ‘oe kau fakafoki series was shot on Todd’s Sony α7R III, using either the Sony 85mm f/1.8 lens or the Sony Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 lens. For the last seven months, Todd’s been shooting exclusively on Sony. He especially likes this model for the kind of documentary work that he does. He finds the α7R III small enough to travel with, tough, reliable, inconspicuous, and capable of performing many functions. “I did a lot of shooting during the filming sessions of the doco as well, and I really appreciated the silent mode — it’s 100% silent.”
The project’s not over yet, though. Todd travels to Tonga quite often, as his wife is of Tongan heritage, so he says he’ll end up photographing more people he meets. He also likes the idea of expanding the project to other countries dealing with their own influx of deportees, like Samoa, Cambodia, Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, and China.