“People tend to be more open than you might be led to believe,” says Ricardo Nagaoka. “I strongly believe in photography’s capacity to find empathy through this glimpse into someone’s world, one that you might not be privy to or have not paid attention to in the past.”
The Paraguay-born, Japanese-Canadian photographer, who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015, has spent the last year or so documenting the lived experiences of the African-American community in Portland, Oregon, as part of an ongoing – and exceptional – project, Eden Within Eden.
The title comes from James J. Kopp’s 2009 study of the state’s allegedly utopian history. “The reality is,” Ricardo tells us, “the Oregon Territory was born as a white haven, and it was decreed that no person of colour could inhabit its lands. Those that did would be subject to punishment and expulsion.”
Ricardo moved to Portland when his partner was offered a job in the city in 2015, and Eden Within Eden’s elegiac blend of late-afternoon portraiture and scenic establishing shots are an attempt to examine the effects of rapid gentrification on a predominantly black population.
In a recent interview with FotoRoom, Ricardo says, “Redlining, urban renewal projects, and a whole host of questionable policies have isolated black communities out of the metro area and into this part of town; gentrification is now pushing the same people out of the neighbourhoods that have become their home,” adding that he sees Eden Within Eden as a photographic reflection of, “these pains and scars, ones that unfortunately mirror what has been pervading the country since its inception.”
Boredom, ennui and frustration seep into these photos – this is Eden as purgatory, a social world constantly aware of the inability to return to prelapsarian ideals and idylls. The sun beats down on exhausted children who lean on bike frames or simply lay themselves on the floor; sun-worn signs exhort us to “PLEASE PRAY”; swollen American footballs rest, inert, atop faded fallen leaves. A strange and disquieting stillness seems to permeate every inch of every frame.
While (understandably) reticent to explain everything, he admits that the biblical understanding of the Garden of Eden has had some impact on this project, but he’d rather viewers didn’t have to bow down to a didactic interpretation of the work, passed down from on high by the photographer.
Considering himself to be “more of a storyteller as opposed to a reporter,” Ricardo considers sensitivity and respect to be of the utmost importance when it comes to seeking access to subjects and spaces. His stance is self-reflective and refreshingly honest.
Earlier projects like A Distant Land, the autobiographical documentation of the Japanese diaspora in Paraguay, make it clear that Ricardo practices what he preaches.
“One should always question if their intentions are genuine, ethical, and if the images themselves reflect those qualities. I ask myself: is anyone being exploited? Is the work disingenuine or culturally insensitive? Have I done all the necessary research to avoid making an ill-informed body of work?”