When American-born-and-raised photographer Todd Henry first made his way to Tonga in 2007, he thought it'd be one of those places you visit once and never see again. A year later, though, in Auckland, he met the Tongan woman who would become his wife. Now, a decade on, he speaks Tongan and says he has no idea how many times he's been back to the tiny Pacific nation to visit family and friends, always taking his camera along with him.
Todd's most recent visit to Tonga was as the associate producer of VICE New Zealand's Gangsters in Paradise: Deportees of Tonga. The project began when Todd, a frequent contributor, brought the idea for the documentary to VICE. A month or two later, VICE was in Tonga.
Between filming for the documentary, Todd found the time to take this intimate series of portraits of the deportees VICE met—some of whom appeared in the film. VICE caught up with Todd to talk about how he found the story, the challenges of telling it, and why he wanted to present it both as a documentary and in this series of intimate portraits that leaves a little more to the imagination.
VICE: Hey Todd, so how did you first learn about Tongan deportees?
Todd Henry: Basically, I was in a café one morning and I was just having a chat and the guy making the coffee said to me in a real thick American accent, ‘Where you from?’ I could tell by appearance that he was Tongan, but he was different. He had tattoos that weren’t Tongan, and the accent of course. That made me curious, like what’s this guy’s story? We had a little chat, he said he was from Salt Lake City. That turned out to be 'Ila [who appears in the documentary].
We caught up later and had some beers and he told me a bit of his story about how he’d been deported. And essentially he's stuck in Tonga and that’s it for him. He can’t go back to the States. What really kind of got my attention and piqued my interest was the fact that culturally 'Ila is American but in terms of nationality and ethnicity, he’s not. He told me a bit about his experience and how it’s hard for them to settle back in and after that I started paying a bit more attention to these guys who were deportees and talking to them about their experiences and how hard it is for them to come back and find a place in Tongan society, this country that is supposed to be their home. It’s really difficult. I thought about it from the perspective of imagining I could never go back to the United States, and how it would be really tough.
My experience growing up in the United States and their experiences are vastly different, but we still have this common ground. We’re from the same place so I can relate to them. I think they were comfortable talking to me because they figured out quickly that I’m not a missionary and that I have this other connection to Tonga too through my wife. So I formed some friendships that wouldn’t have formed if I had run into some of these guys in the States. It’s interesting the way you develop common ground on something when the tables are shifted around like that.
Why did the deportees appeal to you as a photographer? These guys, they’ve been through a lot in life, and I feel like it comes through in their faces. That’s why I shot the photos, the portraits, the way I did, right up close. It shows every scar they have. They’re looking down the lens of the camera and I feel like it speaks about their experience, even if you don’t know it. I just wanted the only thing you know, looking at these photos, to be that these guys are deportees. It tells a story, but leaves a little bit of mystery at the same time. That’s what I wanted to get through. I often don’t get that close up to subjects, but I wanted to in this instance.
And why did the subject appeal a filmmaker?
In the documentary, I wanted to focus on the individual stories of a few of the guys, which we did do, just for deeper understanding. The portraits are little bit ambiguous, here’s these guys, up close, and a few of the ones in the portraits are in the film too, so you’ll know their story.
For years I thought these were stories that needed to be told. I mean obviously nothing glorifying criminal life or having gang affiliations or any of that stuff. But I just think the complexities in their lives as they get back into Tonga—I feel like it was worthy of deeper investigation and more detail, just so we could get some positive discussion going. Meaningful discussion in Tonga itself. It’s a topic there all the time, people are always referencing the deportees, the deportees. And there’s a lot of social issues because there’s not a social safety net or a way that they can fit back into the society, like a reintegration programme.
Is it hard to maintain your friendships with deportees?
I know that when I first started hanging out with ‘Ila, some people would be like, you know, he’s a deportee, he’s sketchy, and tell me to be careful. Or even in my own mind, I’d be like, ‘I really don’t know this guy.’ But over the years I’ve gotten to know him on a personal level, and I trust him. It was definitely a process to overcome your own biases when you know someone has a criminal background or whatever, but it takes time.
I’ve been surprised by the way some of them have managed to fit into Tongan society. Some of them come, they know zero Tongan language, they weren’t raised around the culture, even though they grew up in Tongan families. They’ve managed to come and learn the way of respect, the way of doing things in Tonga, learned the language really well. It’s shocking the number of them that have left behind family in the US, New Zealand or Australia when they were deported.
Some of these people have done terrible things, and some people, of course, won't stop doing bad things when they get back to Tonga—does that concern you?
There are things that I find concerning. But the whole idea behind it is I think that, of course, a lot of them come and they’re not going to change their criminal lifestyle. But some of them when they come, they look at it as a chance to rebuild and learn to live the Tongan way and stay here and find a way to be successful. But when there is stigmatisation towards all of them the way there is, it leaves some of them with no alternative. If you go and try something else and no one is giving you a fair chance, and you don’t have family or any contacts there, I think it comes down to either you’re going to starve and be homeless or you revert back to your own ways because that’s all you know... These guys—yeah, say what you want, they’re criminals, maybe they did horrible things, they don’t deserve second chances—but when they don’t get that fair second chance, the rest of society pays the price. And it’s an issue I think has to be addressed on some level. I don’t have the answers, but I want positive discussion to come about.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.