Ricardo Nagaoka is Japanese photographer, born in Asunción, Paraguay, where he lived for half of his life. He later moved to Ontario, Canada in 2005, then to Rhode Island to attend the Rhode Island School of Design (BFA Photography 2015). Portland, OR is his new home… at the moment. A descendant of a Japanese family that arrived in Paraguay almost a century ago, Ricardo questions the importance of his cultural identity as successive generations are born and old ones pass away.
These images form his project “A Distant Land”. It is a continuous documentation of the Japanese diaspora in Paraguay as they undergo a generational transition; a meditation of cultural delineations, historical frameworks, and the effects of rapid globalization. This body of work is not seeking truths, whether objective or subjective, but rather reflecting, reframing, and recontextualizing the world I was thrust upon. In his words…
I was born in Paraguay, a landlocked country in the center of South America, to Japanese parents. While my heritage is Japanese, I, along with my parents, were born and raised in Paraguay.
My journey with photography began at a relatively young age, when I picked up a photo book from my grandparents coffee table. I looked through these bright images of landscapes, flora, and temples taken from remote areas in Japan all the way to South America. Not long after, I learned that the book was the work of my great-grandfather. He worked at the Olympus camera factory in Japan, which led his interest in photography as an art form. I had med him as a toddler, but he had unfortunately passed away shortly thereafter. To come from a family of businesspeople and see this spark of artistic creation was invigorating, leading to my parents gifting me with my first camera at thirteen. While these events happened quite a while ago, I think, and I like to believe, that these experiences have had a profound effect on me as a person and an artist.
I don’t truly identify with a singular culture or nation. My life and my work have always revolved around my impermanence to a geographical location; the never-ending feeling of floating between boundaries and lines. When I first came upon this question as a teenager it spawned a deep turmoil within my being, sparking a yearning to belong, to be a part of something larger than my individuality. While my criticality on the subject has stayed steady, if not amplified by being an artist, I have learned to appreciate and embrace my existence as the constant outsider.
The project’s inception was a total “right under your nose” situation. A couple years ago, I was trying to find a subject matter to focus an entire body of work on, I was admittedly a little lost within the photographic medium. Around that time, one of my mentors suggested I dig into my relatively unique situation of being a Japanese-Paraguayan expat and the implied ramifications of what that meant in a global context. The following summer I took a trip back “home” to Paraguay to do some research and get a lay of the land as to who the Japanese population was, where they were, and what was going on at the time. A handful of interviews and road trips later, and like a wave coming in from the sea the entire project naturally flowed outward, letting it take me to territories I never imagined I would reach.
“A Distant Land” is a labor of love, an adventure into my heritage, and a celebration of cultural identity while interrogating its very existence. The work is about generational shifts, cultural perseverance, and in the end, what defines a community. Being my first definitive body of work, this project really taught me so much about what it means to be a photographer and the responsibilities we carry as image-makers. How we interact with subjects, how we choose to depict them, and what it all says about the subject matter we are portraying.
Yes, General Survey is definitely an ongoing search. I am still trying to define and deconstruct cultural borders; delineating and deconstructing what it means to exist in a liminal space. You’ve probably noticed that my approach to the medium has shifted since A Distant Land. The images are an amalgamation of subjects, geographies, and interventions as opposed to being tied to the specific landscape and community of my previous body of work. This time around, I am wholeheartedly using the medium as a playful yet poetic vocabulary, letting myself and the viewer wander more, being more mysterious while asking harder questions. Now what is it all trying to say? You’re probably going to have to ask me again in the future because I certainly haven’t reached that point!
I use a Fujifilm GF-670, Kodak Portra 400, a tripod, and Photoshop. I have been using the same equipment for 6 years now! Reason being I was once told, and you’re going to have to excuse me because I cannot remember the source of it, to stick to one camera and one lens and shoot that exclusively for as long as you can. Why? To challenge myself to get closer or farther to my subject instead of relying on gear, to pay closer attention to what is in front of my camera and my surroundings, and in the end, to force you to think deeper about the medium, its capabilities and limitations. While I can’t say it’s true for everyone, this methodology has been one of the most important sources of discovery within my image-making practice.
I would have to say looking through old family pictures. No matter how much time passes and how many times I’ve been exposed to vernacular photography by this point, I still have a soft spot for opening an old album filled with fading prints, many of them taken at a time before I was even alive.
I think there’s a lot of exciting things happening right now! There are people using photography as a sculptural material in ways I have not seen before, art books popping up like wildfire, unorthodox methods of displaying photographs in gallery settings, formalist photographers re-emerging with the advent of digital mediums, all while traditional documentary photography still holds strong. The pluralist nature of contemporary art is reinvigorating and quite inspiring!
Make more, see more, and hopefully find new exciting ideas to lead me ahead in this funny thing we call life.
Please share your influences and/or favorite stuff (within and outside of photography):
I recently got Doug Dubois’s new book, “My Last Day At Seventeen”, and wow, what an incredible group of images. I highly recommend it to photographers and casual viewers alike! Reading is a big source of material for my work, from critical theory to fiction, I always seem to find something that I can take away for my own practice.
Something to say to our readers or aspiring photographers:
Take more photos!
All photos © Ricardo Nagaoka : Website