Eliot Neighborhood through the Lens of Ricardo Nagaoka

Ricardo Nagaoka is new to the Eliot Neighborhood. He hasn’t borne full witness to its creeping gentrification over the past few decades, but he arrived at a critical time in its history. Neighborhoods are always undergoing flux, but Eliot is currently changing at an extremely fast pace. This rapid transformation is the inspiration for his latest project, a book of collected portraits of long-time local residents.

Nagaoka is a photographer by profession who, despite his short time in Portland, has already become very involved in the community and produced stunning portraits. He has photographed Latino Portland Public Schools students for the ¡Sí Se Puede! Student Recognition Event, has shown work at galleries like c3: initiative in St. Johns, and has been photographing people in the Eliot neighborhood.

Nagaoka first started photographing Eliot residents because his natural inclination is to photograph his surroundings, his home.  Home is a word that can be infused with a veritable panoply of meanings and corresponding identities. Ricardo Nagaoka is a sansei–a third generation Japanese person born on soil outside of Japan. His grandparents immigrated to Paraguay after the events of WWII in order to make a new life upon the rich Paraguayan soil.  Nagaoka grew up navigating between cultural frameworks and identities.

Years later, while attending Rhode Island School of Design and contemplating what to focus on for his photography thesis project, he realized, “This is normal to me that there are Japanese people in Paraguay, but most people don’t know this story.” Nagaoka proceeded to use his Fujifilm camera and Portra 400 film to document the cultural terrain he grew up within: the Japanese diaspora in Asunción, Paraguay. He published a book of these images, titled A Distant Land.

Now, Nagaoka is working on a project that will eventually become his second book. The project’s beginnings are rooted in conversations he had with his neighbor and long-time Eliot resident, Dante Graham-Preston. Graham-Preston was organizing an August 26th Block Party to celebrate the neighborhood’s roots and to bring awareness of the neighborhood’s history to new Eliot residents. He reached out to Nagaoka and asked him to make portraits of Eliot residents to display at the Block Party.  Nagaoka had already been making portraits in the neighborhood and enthusiastically agreed to Graham-Preston’s request.

Fairly quickly, taking portraits in the neighborhood morphed into a project much bigger than the Block Party. He explained, “What pushed me to keep going with this project is that no one else is taking these pictures right now and there’s only so much time before things change, whether for the good or the bad. But they’re seemingly going to be changing very, very quickly, so that’s where the urgency of the project came from.” Continue reading below to hear Nagaoka’s own words about the project.

Why did you move to Portland, and specifically the Eliot neighborhood? Did you know anything about the Eliot neighborhood before you moved here?

We moved to Portland because my wife got a job out here. We relocated from the East Coast, and we moved to the West Side because it was closer for her commute. It was not our scene. We were the youngest people there. I know Portland is the whitest mid-sized city in the country, so I was thinking, “Ok, where do I find the diversity?” My friends told me to go to North Portland, and that’s how I ended up in this neighborhood.

How do you choose your subjects?

I just walk around. If someone catches my eye or if I see someone that’s around a lot, I approach them, tell them I’m doing a documentary project, and ask them what their history is in the neighborhood. I ask them, “How do you see the changes that have been happening here the last 10 years?” It’s been very insightful because I’ve gotten such a mixed batch of responses. To an outsider, it seems so black and white. Obviously, nothing ever is. Some people say that the neighborhood has been cleaned up and you don’t have to worry about gangs and drugs anymore. Other people have the response I thought they would have. They’re angry because people are getting priced out and we’re losing community.

Why did you choose a book as the format for displaying this project?

I don’t want to show the images in galleries because that’s not how I envision the project. It can be seen as exploitative when I’m taking something from the neighborhood and putting it in a space that isn’t an egalitarian space. A book is egalitarian. A book is something physical that, once it’s printed, I can physically give back to people in the neighborhood.

What do you see as overarching themes of your work?

I’ve always been making work about communities that people don’t necessarily know exist or know the strength in them. That’s how I’m approaching this project too. My work is always about home in different ways. That’s what drives me about this project is the eradication of the home and how strong people have been to put their foot down. Most people are like, “Yeah. I’m not gonna sell the house. I’m not gonna let my kids or my grandkids sell the house.”

Do you already have a title imagined for the neighborhood book project?

When I first got here, I read parts of a book called Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage. It’s kind of dry, but it’s interesting. James J. Kopp, the author, discusses the history of Oregon and how it was seen as a utopia and a white haven. Oregon became a breeding ground for people’s utopian projects because it was such an open land.

Eden Within Eden is a title that I have thought of putting on this project in order to invert that storyline because that history is all about white people trying to create their utopias and the failure of creating those utopias.

I normally never choose the title until I get to the full edit. What’s been guiding the title idea as of now is rewriting that narrative because all we hear about the history of Oregon is European people’s history. The history of people of color was put aside.

Are you open to people reaching out to you if they want to be photographed?

Yes!  The best way is by email at ricardonagaoka@gmail.com.