Creator of the Black Gold Project

This article was originally featured in the December 2023 issue of Connect.

Cameron Peagler (Yamaguchi) interviewed by Sierra Block Gorman (Gunma)

Sierra: So—Cameron Peagler: who is he?

Cameron: Who am I? I dunno. Former registered nurse, wannabe olympic fencer, photographer, you name it. I’ve done a lot of stuff. I’m just a kid from Ohio, trying to do a little bit of good in the world. 

Sierra: How long have you lived in Japan?

Cameron: About four years at this point. 

Sierra: So, you’re simultaneously doing your art and your activism work and JET?

Cameron: Yeah, and I’m also very active in my local community as well, with my photography. One of my first photography projects was highlighting small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic with the hopes of increasing their customers. ‘Cause you know at the time, a lot of small business owners were losing their businesses. So, I went around and I took portraits of local Japanese business owners and I held a photo exhibition to showcase everyone.

Sierra: That’s a very direct form of activism, especially in such a difficult time for everyone. 

Cameron: Yeah, I did that and then I was a grant recipient back when the pandemic was first introduced to Japan. With that money, we donated masks to all the schools and created educational materials. Like I said earlier, I just want to do some good in the world, you know what I mean? So even this event, with the admission fees and all that—all that stuff goes to the performing artists for donating their time today, so I won’t receive any of that.

Sierra: So was photography something you studied more by yourself or in school?

Cameron: So in high school I did a little bit, stopped it, but I always liked the idea of photography. It wasn’t until I moved to Japan and I really picked up a real camera and started shooting that my ability to take photos started to grow. And actually through this project, I was able to meet Matthew Jordan Smith, who’s a world famous photographer, and I learned under him, as well as Carmen Cheung, who is a commercial photographer in Canada.

Sierra: That must have been really exciting. Was it interesting, photographing another photographer?

Cameron: Yeah. It was a little—I don’t want to say daunting, but I wanted to make sure I had my stuff in order because Matthew is a master photographer. He knows how to control every element of a photograph. Just like that, [Cameron snaps], he knows what to do. It was a little daunting, but it was a unique collab and we ended up getting some good photos. Actually, with a tripod I took additional photos of him shooting me as well, to get the whole process. It was really cool. The photo that’s in the gallery now, I like it. 

Sierra: Speaking of the gallery, tell me about this event we’re at. 

Cameron: Our Black Gold Tokyo event is featuring some of our creatives who participated in Black Gold and they’ll be showcasing their respective crafts with the intent of celebrating artists living in Japan, as well as connecting the Japanese and Black communities closer together through a direct cultural exchange opportunity.

Sierra: Awesome. What inspired the Black Gold Project? Where did it get its start?

Cameron: Actually it’s interesting—it was over a year ago, and I was applying for this really prestigious grant opportunity and the goal of the grant was to highlight communities of color. And I came up with this idea to highlight the Black community in Japan, because I think that there is an interesting story to be shown and people whose stories often go uncelebrated. And I fought for this grant opportunity, didn’t get it, it was shut down, and I said you know what, I’m still gonna pursue it anyways. So after a year of travelling around Japan, meeting everybody, doing interviews, hearing their stories, here we are now!

Sierra: That’s really cool, especially that you didn’t let not getting the grant stop you from going forward with this really important idea.

Cameron: Yeah, I feel like usually if you hear a ‘no’ it’s probably a good sign that you’re on the right track. So, I look for the ‘no’s.

Sierra: That’s great—if you hear a no, it’s a good sign. So tell me a little bit more about the Black Gold Project. What were its goals, what was the process?

Cameron: The goals were the first two things I mentioned earlier, as well as using the work to inspire Black youth in America to study abroad. So we have three exhibitions planned in America starting this month, [at] Wright State University, The Ohio State University, and the University of Delaware. The study abroad rate for Black, African-American college students is extremely low, it’s about 5.5%. Which is. . . not that many. So I’m hoping that by showing our community actually thriving in Japan, others will be inspired to pursue their own paths in another country.

Sierra: So tell me about some of the artists and creators you’ve worked with. Any particularly interesting to work with?

Cameron: Hm. . . Oh! So today I’ll be presenting a very special piece. It’s not part of Black Gold but it will be for sale. [A collaboration] between me and The Jayder. He’s a body painter out here in Tokyo. We did a collab recently and we’ll be showing a special piece soon.

Sierra: Your photoshoot with him, what was that like as an experience?

Cameron: We shot for 10 hours. A 10 hour long shoot. It was the longest shoot I’ve ever done before, but you know, body painting takes a lot of time. So it was really good working with him because as a professional artist he understood the importance of preparing prior to creating this work. So that included concepts—I can’t tell you how many concepts that we went over—that includes [figuring out] what kind of storytelling are we doing, we had to make a vision board before we made the work, and then we had to consider, OK, is this feasible, is this not feasible. So I think in the piece that we’re revealing today, you’ll really see the effort that we put into it. 

Sierra: So, about the Black Gold Project. You’ve done a lot so far, you’ve posted on Instagram, you’ve had this event—do you feel that you’ve seen the impact of your work yet? Or do you feel that’s still to come?

Cameron: I’m not sure. There’s several organizations that I’ve partnered up with to spread the work and the idea about it [including the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Tokyo Embassy, and the National Association for Black Engagement with Asia]. You know what, I feel like sometimes you don’t see the direct impact. So today we actually have a questionnaire for people to share their feedback and we can get some data that way. But I feel like the impact of the overall project itself, people seeing the photos, who knows how many people have actually seen the photos, were inspired by it, felt a certain way about it, and didn’t tell me anything about it, right? When I have my exhibitions in America, the ones I was telling you about, who knows how many college students are gonna walk past, look at it, read the interviews, and go “Dang that was fire! I could do this!” And then they kept going about their day. So I dunno how impactful it’s going to be, but what I do know is that I can do only the most that I can do, right? Which is this. And if I do that, then that’s enough. You know, I go downstairs, and I see people connecting, laughing, smiling, then that was enough. 

Sierra: Absolutely. OK, last one: Do you have any other projects coming up, besides the exhibitions in America?

Cameron: OK, for sure me and Jayder are gonna do future collaborations. The work that we produced was fire, I dunno how else to say it. And then I’m doing a new project I started last month called Ice Candy. It’s something that’s a little less social justice and more just me just tapping into creativity. I’ll be doing fashion photography with Japanese women in the hopes of sharing their personalities through their clothing. That and short interviews, ‘cause I like short interviews.

Sierra: Lastly, is there anything in particular you would like to share with [CONNECT]’s readers? 

Cameron: Here’s one: Be active in your community with whatever you’re skilled at. I don’t care if you’re good at mowing lawns or taking photos, use what you’re good at doing to connect with your community. ‘Cause I believe that a lot of [CONNECT]’s readers are from JET and stuff right? So you’re here on these programs, I believe that you’re not only an English teacher but you’re a representative of your own community. So the best way to represent your own community is to go out and be part of the community in Japan. And the best way to do that is through your craft.

Sierra: So true. Thank you so much for your time.

Cameron Peagler believes art is the flare that illuminates inequality, warms those in need, and challenges the world to view social issues differently. Understanding the delicate nature of storytelling that goes beyond the mechanical mastery of photography, Cameron focuses on nourishing BIPOC and underprivileged communities through genuine human connection and empowerment. With this in mind, Cameron simultaneously strives to strengthen relations between Japan and the communities he works with.

Sierra Block Gorman is the Arts Editor of [CONNECT] Magazine. She is a third-year JET based in Gunma Prefecture. When not visiting museums or practicing calligraphy, she can be found editing articles for the Arts Section and is always looking for new contributors.