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In Conversation: Ricardo Nagaoka’s Eden within Eden

Ricardo Nagaoka unveils his new series titled, “Eden within Eden“. The collection sees the photographer capture the mood and relationship in North Portland, Oregon between the effects of gentrification on the community, diversity, and inclusion.

In a statement, Nagaoka says “In a small area of the Portland Metro known as North Portland, black Americans made their home in a place and a time not far from the state’s founding as a “white utopia”. This community has experienced a long history of cataclysms, clashes, and the cruelty of systemic racism inflicted by city officials.

The story continues today, behind tall fences, under lush trees, where budding spirits keep the faith that there will be a new tomorrow.”

Read more below and follow Ricardo Here

Tell us a bit about you?

I was born in Paraguay to Japanese parents, where I spent the first twelve years of my life until our family immigrated to Canada. Growing up as a third generation immigrant in a homogenous country was not easy, racism was common and often expected. Things changed for the better when we landed in Canada, and in retrospect the major shift in environments  is what allowed me to see with greater clarity. I was certainly pushed to question identity at a young age, to be open and inquisitive of our surroundings.

I picked up a camera around the same time, and the medium has dictated a large portion of my adult life. I studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and the personal work I make is directly informed by these life experiences.

Where are you currently based?

I am currently living and working in Portland, OR.

When did you begin photographing and how has your style developed?

I started taking pictures when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I got my first camera as a gift from my parents after I started showing some interest. I didn’t really start developing a more personal eye until I started studying photography in college. Being immersed in the medium at an academic level, surrounded by like-minded peers and faculty, really helped me grow into the artist that I am today.

What is 1 thing you’d like viewers to take away from your photography?

If a viewer can begin to empathize with the stories of others, to find similarities in our human condition even if we’re from completely different walks of life, I can only then feel that I have succeeded in communicating through my images.

Tell us about your new series Eden within Eden?

The body of work actually started as a commission from a local non-profit. They had asked me to take portraits in the surrounding neighborhoods of North Portland, focusing on people who had been living in the community before the city had experienced the explosive growth that continues today.

On my walks, I was quickly made aware of the city’s tumultuous relationship with race: a history of systemic racism that was determined to isolate and deter black Americans from making Portland their home, a story that reverberates throughout every major city in America. The accelerated gentrification of Portland, which has been one of the fastest changing cities in the country, is the latest iteration of socioeconomic powers pushing residents out of their communities.

The neighborhoods have changed more in the past five years than in the previous couple of decades, which is where the urgency of the story pulled me into the work beyond the scope of the original commission. People are losing homes, communities are being dispersed, and the adversities of “progressive development” have not shown any signs of stopping.

You’re world travelled and gentrification is happening all over the world, why did you focus on Portland?

I was already living in Portland when I was commissioned, and being in the neighborhoods every day has been deeply important in truly grasping and understanding the nuances of the situation.

And sure, the story of Portland is not unique, but my hopes of telling this increasingly universal story is to shed light on the complexities of home, race, and the effects of gentrification that pervade this country.

In a statement on the project you said “black Americans made their home in a place and a time not far from the state’s founding as a “white utopia”.” Talk us through what you feel here and the ideas behind the statement?

Well, it’s less of what I feel, as it has to do with the history of the state. Before Oregon gained statehood, the Provisional Government of Oregon passed a law known as the Black Exclusion Laws. African Americans were prohibited from entering, and any African American who had already settled was to leave or be arrested, beaten, and forcibly removed from the territory.

These laws were eventually repealed as they were deemed to harsh for the public eye, however, men in power were quick to amend the Oregon Constitution with similar exclusionary language to fulfill their desires to keep the state “white-only”. It wasn’t until fairly recently that this language was fully removed, and the effects of its implementation are still felt today.

America is currently in questionable politic state currently; do you see this translating in the mood of the people around the ideas gentrification?

To a certain extent yes. I think the political situation in the U.S. has pushed the general populace to be more cognizant of social issues, with some acting upon it for the first time. Gentrification isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the mainstream narrative at the moment, but the general attention towards pertinent social issues does help increase awareness on many fronts.

Now, if it’s going to incite a change of mood I can’t say. The immense power of capital gain has shown little to no mercy, which has definitely demoralized large groups of people. That being said, I still believe there is hope in making an effort to help your local communities and bolstering neighborhood leaders. Change is slow, but it is possible.

What’s Next for you?

Continuing to build this project and making more pictures!

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