In Conversation with Ricardo Nagaoka

Interview Timothy Frazier
Image Ricardo Nagaoka

TF: How did you get into photography?

RN: I used to hang out a lot with skaters when I was in high school. As soon as I got my first camera, they naturally designated me as the photographer. Fast forward a couple years, junior year of high school was ending, college applications were looming, and I was nowhere near figuring out what I wanted to do in life. In the midst of all this, one of my art teachers suggested I try applying to school for photography.

RN: As silly as this sounds, I had not even thought of photography as a career choice, much less a viable artistic medium. My school didn’t have a photo program at all, so I wasn’t really exposed to it as an artform until college. In this sort of a-ha moment, I took photography a lot more seriously, built a portfolio, applied to schools, and the rest is history.

TF: Tell me about your project, "Eden Within Eden".

RN: The work is centered around the cluster of neighborhoods in North Portland and the city’s history of segregation, systemic racism, and the rapid changes that gentrification has brought about the city. What was the city of Vanport, where most African American folks lived, suffered a catastrophic flood that destroyed every home. When they tried finding a new home, the city fiercely restricted their choice of housing to these neighborhoods. Segregation was carried out through restrictive covenants on home title deeds, banks employing redlining tactics to impede people from taking out loans, and ultimately having the city decree this area as “undesirable” through their own makings.

RN: Gentrification is the new beast taking over the city, something most Americans cities are dealing with in varying degrees. While these powerful economic forces do affect a diverse group of people, the work is focused on the Black and African American communities, the injustices of the past, and their historical ties to the place they have called home for decades.

TF: Tell me about your project, "A Distant Land".

RN: It was my first, long term project I worked on while I was in school. Over the course of a couple years, I spent time making images of the Japanese community in Paraguay, where I was born and raised. As the first generation of Japanese immigrants were growing old, I was interested in the preservation of heritage and cultural identity, and what importance they held for communities. I learned a lot about myself making this body of work, and although I see its many flaws now, it still feels special to me.

TF: You studied at Rhode Island School of Design and then drove across the country to live in Portland, Oregon. Could you talk about that experience? What got you interested in setting up shop in Portland?

RN: RISD was an incredible experience, and an absolute privilege to be able to attend a school of their caliber. Biggest thing I learned there was how to go about being critical, inquisitive, and curious when looking at work, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. After I graduated, my partner got a job in Portland, which is what prompted the move.

TF: If you could have any superpower what would it be and why?

RN: Time travel for sure. Can you imagine being able to experience any time period in history?

TF: What are your thoughts on the future of photography?

RN: Excited, yet anxious? I think there’s a bright future for this medium, every year I’m surprised by how people are pushing the medium. But I can’t deny the anxiety from the ever-growing, seemingly infinite amounts of images being created every day. I just hope people don’t get burnt out and stop appreciating images as we do now.

TF: Future plans or upcoming projects?

RN: Keep working on the project here in Portland, eventually try to get it published once I feel it’s in a good place. I’m also exploring some completely new ideas with my practice, but it’s way too early to tell how that will turn out!

Ricardo Nagaoka is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon. You may view more of his work on his website,