The Kingdom of Tonga is a country composed of 171 islands in Polynesia and is part of greater Oceania. Though there are roughly 200,000 Tongans worldwide, diaspora communities in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, America, and the United Kingdom now represent almost half of the total Tongan world population. Both in the country and abroad, the Tongan national sport is rugby. Emigrant communities have often settled in areas where there are thriving rugby cultures — including the suburb of Pontypool, Wales, where this photoshoot took place.
This May, Cardiff, United Kingdom-based portrait photographer Francesca Jones collaborated with Rugby Journal – a return client – on a cover and feature shoot for its 22nd Issue. The shoot showcased three young Welsh Tongan rugby players.
Rugby Journal is a London-based quarterly print and digital publication, featuring exclusive sports interviews, stories, and more. The editorial brand is published by Sporting Eric., a full-service sports marketing agency, based in London.
The subjects of the feature are the newest generation of the Tuipulotu family rugby legacy. Siblings Sisilia, 19, and Kepu, 17, along with their cousin, Carwyn, 21, are the children of the famed Tuipulotu cousins, Kati and Sione, who have 16 and 28 rugby caps for Tonga, respectively.
Among many other achievements: Carwyn plays at the back of Scarlets Rugby scrum; Sisilia plays for Gloucester Hartpury and was awarded player of the tournament for the recent TikTok Six Nations; and Kepu is hooker at Harrow school and plays for England under 18s.
Francesca has worked with Rugby Journal on two earlier projects. She was initially recommended (by a previous client) to the journal’s Creative Director, Simon Campbell, for her experience in portraiture.
The journal was pleased with the variety of shots I delivered on the first two shoots. I enjoy working with this client as they are happy for me to experiment a bit with my style or shooting black and white. It’s a small publication but they utilize the images really nicely and it’s very well designed.
Francesca and the journal’s creative director were able to keep the preplanning for the project to a minimum.
I had an idea of what the article was about beforehand but that’s it. No brief given. I had free rein really. I enjoy working this way, but I’m also happy working to a tighter brief as well. It’s good to have the opportunity to do both!
For this project, I wanted to capture the relationship between the cousins. They clearly get on well together and enjoy each other’s company. I wanted to convey their sense of fun but also their commitment to their sports and church.
The photoshoot took place in May 2023 at the Hope Methodist Church in Pontnewydd, Wales. The excitement around these young players has helped reinvigorate the Welsh Tongan congregation and local community, who gather regularly to enjoy the matches and support the cousins.
The location was pretty accessible but there wasn’t a huge amount of choice in terms of where to shoot — mainly just the car park and inside the church. Initially, I thought I might utilize a green space, but when I got there it became apparent there wasn’t much around or nowhere close enough that would allow us to travel. So instead I had to make use of the car park, which I think actually works. It’s a bit incongruous, but I think, in hindsight, a green space would have been more of the obvious choice — so I’m pleased with how this worked out. You can almost always find an interesting backdrop or space to shoot in most locations.
On the day of the shoot, it was Francesca, the writer, and the three subjects on set, which helped keep the energy and mood relaxed.
It was really fun! The subjects were happy to try different things, be directed, or just get on with stuff while I was shooting. I’m not too imposing as a photographer. I like to direct people to a point but also allow them to relax into the shoot at their own space. You can tell when a shot isn’t working and you can just move on quietly without making a fuss. I think my calm nature helps people feel more comfortable.
Portraits of more than one person can always be a bit tricky, but it makes me enjoy the challenge of shooting even more!
Without an assistant, Francesca’s resourcefulness and patience came into play when negotiating with the midday sun.
It was quite a bright day which isn’t my favorite, so I just utilized the shady spots and waited for a cloud to appear! I didn’t have loads of time, but more time than other shoots! Ideally, I have time for a recce, but the actual shooting can be quite fast. If I know I won’t have much time, then having an assistant is usually preferable. Luckily, there was time to wait for a cloud.
See more of Francesca’s work on her website.