In ‘Eden within Eden’, Ricardo Nagaoka explores Portland’s relationship with race and gentrification through an intimate series of photographs.
The photographs that form ‘Eden within Eden’ were taken in the northeast of Portland, an area where the majority of African American population of the city reside. Born out of an assignment for an NGO, the project quickly moved beyond its original confines as Ricardo attempted to tackle the gentrification and rapid development of his adopted home. We spoke to the Paraguay-born, Portland-based photographer about his diasporic history, and the urgency of his series, ‘Eden within Eden’.
You have lived across continents, could you tell us a bit about your history, and how these places have shaped your work and its content?
I was born to Japanese parents in Asunción, Paraguay, where I spent the first half of my life. Being of Japanese descent, yet raised as a Latino, I grew up as a foreigner to my own country, an outsider to my own nationality and ethnicity. Identity politics became very real for me at a young age, even though at the time I did not have the vocabulary to express such sharp emotions. Not long after, at the age of 12, our family immigrated to Canada due to socio-political turmoil in Paraguay. For the first time since my grandparents landed on South American soil, we felt the immigrant experience firsthand, going through the gamut as we felt our new surroundings and re-examined our agency in the world. I later moved to the U.S. for school, where I now currently live with my partner post-graduation.
“I continue to strive to make work that challenges pre-existing notions of cultural identities, the arbitrary borders that surround us, and our movements as we oscillate through these constructed spaces.”
It’s safe to say, these experiences have had a profound impact on how I went about constructing my identity while questioning its own authenticity. It has been a slow, learning process to transform the anxieties and fears of the past into materials and strategies for my own artistic practice. I continue to strive to make work that challenges pre-existing notions of cultural identities, the arbitrary borders that surround us, and our movements as we oscillate through these constructed spaces.
The series ‘Eden within Eden’ is looking at gentrification, can you tell us a bit more about the premise of the series?
I was originally commissioned by a local non-profit to make some portraits of the people who have deep roots in the Northeast Portland neighborhood, a rapidly changing part of the city where the majority of the city’s African American population resides. After it was all said and done, the stories and personalities of the community interested me beyond the original commission. Portland’s relationship with race and gentrification is unfortunately nothing new in this country; as many of us know, the rhetoric has become too common. But Portland is experiencing one of the fastest rates of development, and combined with Oregon’s infamous history as a “white-only haven”, the urgency to tell this story beyond the boundaries of this city is palpable. Not only do the wounds run deep, for many they are fresh and unseen in the public’s perception.
You call the process of gentrification ‘pervasive and insidious’ — could you elaborate, and tell us why you felt it important to portray a topic like this?
The eradication of the home, which in itself is a haven for individuals and family alike, is a violent act disguised as economic progress. While the physical removal of historic neighborhoods and multi-generational homes is quite visible, the consequent crumbling of the home as an anchor and signifier of identity is what I find so pervasive and insidious. When we lose a house, it’s not the absence of physical hallways and rooms we feel, but the memories and identities we form in those specific spaces. We think of our birthday party in the backyard, a Christmas morning spent with our family in the living room, or how each family member has their unspoken seating arrangement at the dinner table. Very often, we identify someone with the home they live in, how their family found their place in the world under a roof. When gentrification comes rushing in at the rate with which we have seen in Portland, we are left with so little time to process what has been lost.
All images © Ricardo Nagaoka