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Pips Bunce in "Untitled." Photo by Diogo Duarte​, retouching by Recom Farmhouse, courtesy of the artist

A Celebration of Self: Capturing the Inner Lives of Women and Genderfluid People

Sarah Graham

Sarah Graham

Photographer Diogo Duarte specializes in "psychological portraits" that aim to reveal the inner lives of his subjects. For some, the effects have been transformational.

Pips Bunce in "Untitled." Photo by Diogo Duarte​, retouching by Recom Farmhouse, courtesy of the artist

They say a picture's worth a thousand words, but in a world where 93 million selfies are taken worldwide each day, how much can we really say about ourselves in a photo? For one London-based photographer, the answer is more remarkable than you might expect.

29-year-old mental health worker Diogo Duarte is the creative mind behind PhotoBard—a business offering clients "psychological portraits" that intimately reveal something of their inner selves. And for his mostly female clientele, like psychotherapist Jessica Mitchell, the results have been profound.

"I approached Diogo at a really pivotal point in my life, when I was turning 50. I'd been with my partner for 30 years, my kids were 18 and 20, and I was bored. I wanted to try taking a risk again, to be myself too after years of being a mother and a partner," she says. "As a psychotherapist I liked the idea that images can bring something to self-exploration that is different from just talking, and there was something about Diogo's work that really moved me."

The conversations that followed led to Jessica's striking nude portrait, shot in Winspit caves in Purbeck, Dorset. "It's one of my favourite places in the world, and one of the first places my partner took me when we met," Jessica explains. "Those caves were places we'd wandered together and taken our kids as they grew up."

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For her, the final portrait represents "an ongoing conversation with myself." She adds, "Diogo really picked up on things I said about having two parts of myself—a bright flame and a dark cloud. He really responded to the bright flame idea, and keeping the flame of me alive."

Jessica Mitchell in "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Photo by Diogo Duarte, courtesy of the artist

Diogo's approach is a world away from the glossy makeover photo shoots we're used to and, just as he delves deep into his subjects' inner world, the idea itself comes from a deeply personal part of himself. Born in a small Portuguese town, Diogo came out as gay at the age of 18, and says the experience "wrought havoc" in his life. For the last seven years, creative self-portraiture has provided an outlet to explore gender and sexuality, and what they mean in his life."I grew up with a relentless and constant feeling that there was something wrong about me; I never felt like I could be myself," he explains. "But women played a very important role in my formative years. My mother and grandmother accepted me, and protected me from those who didn't."

In 2010, having moved to the UK to study psychology, Diogo rediscovered his teenage passion for photography. "I started suffering from severe anxiety and turned to photography again to alleviate the pain," he says. "My self-portrait project has been about the process of coming to terms with my feelings and experiences, and seeing those same feelings and experiences in a different light," he explains.

From there, PhotoBard was a natural progression. "A close friend said she wondered what her portrait would look like, and I had an epiphany. I became incredibly interested in exploring other people's inner worlds. PhotoBard was the perfect opportunity to bridge my two passions, photography and psychology," Diogo says.

Penelope in "A Oliveira Azul (The Blue Olive Tree)." Photo by Diogo Duarte, courtesy of the artist

Each photo shoot, he explains, is a unique and collaborative process of getting to know his subject and what makes them tick. For one of his early clients, Penelope, growing up on a farm had been a source of childhood bullying, so the vision behind her portrait was one of reconciliation with her past. "Kids at school would call her Poultry Penelope, so her portrait was really about helping her come to accept her childhood and its importance in her current life," Diogo explains.

For his client Olivia, the process was completely different. "She had a clear idea that she wanted a portrait that was a celebration of self," he says. "I was amazed by her strength and determination, so we did a photographic interpretation of The Magician tarot card, where Olivia assumes the role of the magician—a figure with divine powers to make things happen."

Olivia in "Of her heart's ocean, sagely dark, that holds my heaven and holds my hell." Photo by Diogo Duarte, courtesy of the artist

Most recently, Diogo worked with Pips Bunce, an openly gender fluid director and senior executive at Credit Suissewho has been shortlisted for the 2017 British LGBT Awards. Bunce presents alternately as Phil and Pippa, both of whom appear in the portrait, which was shot in a roof garden nearby Bunce's Credit Suisse office.

"Pips' portrait was inspired by the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale," Diogo explains. "The corporate world can be a scary place to express as both genders, so the path you see in the photo is a reference to finding your way out of a scary forest. Phil is holding crystals, which he is laying down to help both Pippa and Phil find their way back to safety if they need to."

Diogo Duarte and Pips Bunce on set. Photo by Marian Alonso, courtesy of Diogo Duarte

Logistically, he adds, this was the most ambitious portrait because of the number of people involved. "Pips' friends had played a huge supporting role in [Pips'] life, so we decided early on that they would be in the photo too. They're there to protect both Pippa and Phil, which is what they did when [Pips] came out," Diogo says.

Although PhotoBard remains a side project, alongside his work in psychology, Diogo is keen to continue exploring the powerful ways in which photography can enable self-expression. "Every client I work with gets something different out of PhotoBard—a transition, a coming out, a celebration, or an acceptance," he says. "I find it a privilege to be let in and allowed to discover other people's worlds."