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Unconscious commands and judgements of our century

by Diogo Duarte

Featured today is photographer Diogo Duarte with his self-portraiture work Unconscious Commands and Judgements of our Century. Diogo, originally from Portugal, moved to the midlands in the UK at 19 to study psychology and criminology, finally moving to London where he is currently based.

We rarely get submissions that are self-portraiture work, which we would love more of. Diogo’s work is stunning and totally drew us in to his world, the worlds that he constructs. In the age of the selfie, the self-portrait has suffered and become a gimmick or cliche. But it’s a wonderful way to explore yourself, to explore your photography and your relationship with it, which then allows you to explore everything around you.

Read our interview with Diogo below.

All of my working experience has been in the mental health field, mostly in suicide prevention and supporting people with severe mental illness. I was 18 the first time I walked into a psychiatric ward as a volunteer, completely untrained.

Around the same time, I started working on personal photography projects and both things have existed in parallel ever since. Although — they’re not that parallel really as they often cross over. My work influences my art and vice versa. It’s difficult to express in words what it is that I do, but one way to put it would be to say I take photographs to celebrate the darker corners of human psychology. I don’t think this would be possible in the same way for me if I didn’t work in this field where I see so much human pain and suffering, but also transformation and redemption.

What’s your story?

I didn’t really start taking photographs until my late teens, when I was dealing with some difficult things in my personal life. I experienced some pretty severe anxiety during those years, which coincided with coming out as gay — and I sort of stumbled into it. Taking photographs became a vehicle to express myself; I thought it was magical that I could create my own world with a camera, become whomever I wanted to and turn other people into whoever I wanted them to be. I became fascinated with the power a camera has to twist stories, to tell lies and still make them appear real. That served, and still serves, a definite purpose in my life — when I take photographs, I am able to refocus everything.

Please tell us about your work Unconscious Commands and Judgements of our Century.

This work started on a summer afternoon in 2013. I was lying in bed and had this urge to try on high heels, which is not a particularly unusual thought for me. This time I thought I’d photograph it, and that’s how the first self-portrait of this project — La Revanche dans les Latrines — was born. But, in a way, I think it’s fair to say this project has been in the making ever since I was 17, when I made my very first self-portraits. My self-portrait The Philosopher and the Dark Night is almost a remake of a self-portrait I did when I was quite young.

What started as a work I always expected to just be a standalone self-portrait has turned into a long-term project. I now have over 20 self-portraits, all telling a particular story of an aspect of my personality I once thought was best hidden away. I’ve created several “characters” and “worlds” for this project and I like to think of all of them as having a dialogue with each other about acceptance. The overarching concept, if you can call it that, is really quite simple — I wanted to make sense of and celebrate the concepts of repression and expression. I didn’t put much thinking into a coherent story connecting all the images because I was working quite organically in this project; every one of those self-portraits came to me somewhat effortlessly so my ‘conscious’ input was minimal, which in a way is wonderful because other people can make their own meanings from them.

What inspires you?

Good question. Maybe it’s the Portuguese in me, you know, the fado tradition, but I’ve always been inspired by pain and most of all “saudade”, which is a Portuguese word to describe deep nostalgia or melancholia for something or someone.

When I feel “saudade” is when I produce most of my work. I got acquainted with negative experiences and emotions from a young age, and now I like to think I’ve learnt to see the beauty in them. I am inspired by many things but mostly by people — and this is where my job helps me with inspiration. I think people are at their most beautiful when they’re vulnerable and it is really a privilege to see this every day of my life.

What are you up to next?

I’ve recently started working on a project called PhotoBard, which I see as a continuation and expansion of Unconscious Commands and Judgements of our Century.

In Unconscious Commands, I was taking self portraits and exploring a lot of my own emotional states, constantly scratching the surface to see what else existed underneath. In PhotoBard, I’ve started doing this in collaboration with other people. PhotoBard was born in a Lebanese café in London after a friend told me she wanted me to take a portrait of her that reflected her inner world — just like my own do. It’s a wonderful thing to do because it requires a lot of openness and trust from both parties; a lot of opening of doors, a lot of revelations. To achieve a PhotoBard portrait I really need to be let in and be able to delve into another person’s world.

I’ve done this a few times with other people now and it’s such a rewarding and mindblowing experience because, if done right, you can end up with a photograph of a person that is more real than anything they might say to you after hours of conversation. It has been amazing to work with people as they reveal themselves and bring so much honesty and imagination to the photographs we do together.

I have just got started with this project so it is still evolving. Right now, I am looking for people who want to work with me in this way — combining their personal stories with my artistic vision to create transformational photographs. I do this work with private clients and also for funded art projects. I am off to Japan next spring and I hope to be working with mental health professionals supporting tsunami survivors. I am inspired by the idea of creating photographs that show people’s strength and ability to survive in the face absolute vulnerability. I’d eventually like to be able to show these works together as I think they’d show just how beautiful us humans are when we feel able to reveal our true selves.

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