Sometimes words fail me. It’s a difficult thing to admit as a writer, but it’s true. So, for the last few months I’ve been working on a secret visual project with photographer and artist Diogo Duarte. I thought maybe I’d pitch and write an article about it, but I can’t – at least not yet. The circumstances are all wrong, I’m not emotionally ready, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever have quite the right vocabulary to put something so huge and so raw out into the world in quite such a public way. And so, I’m largely going to let the picture speak for itself.
Diogo’s work is stunning. His fine art portraits are high-concept, striking, psychological, and often dark, drawing inspiration from mythology and fairy tales, and tackling themes like gender, sexuality, and mental health. I love the creativity and vulnerability of his self-portraits, and I was so intrigued when he first told me about his plans for a psychological portrait service.
That was almost two years ago. In February of this year, I found myself physically, mentally and emotionally broken by a traumatic car crash that I still can’t put into words or really make sense of. With hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about work so soon afterwards but, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook one day, one of Diogo’s posts sparked an idea. That idea resulted in me writing about his work for Broadly – and then chatting to him about a portrait of my own!
There’s something about Diogo, which I felt from the first moment I met him, that just makes him so easy to talk to. He’s one of those people who exudes warmth, empathy and sincerity – and, having already asked him to get pretty vulnerable when I interviewed him, I felt totally at ease opening myself up in return. Diogo’s background in mental health is really invaluable here too – he both works and volunteers for the Samaritans, so he’s absolutely nailed his probing but supportive approach that really delves into your psyche.
The emotional and creative process
It was April when we had our first proper conversation about the portrait. I was still in a neck brace, still too anxious to use public transport on my own, and still on a seemingly endless waiting list for NHS talking therapy. Diogo came over, sat on the bed with me and the cats, and we talked about everything. And I mean ev-er-y-thing: Memories, and blanks. Nightmares, fears, hopes, and dreams. Shame, guilt, anxiety, despair, confusion, grief, pain. The past, present and future. Things that are public knowledge, and things that I’ll probably take to my grave. It felt like the therapy that I so desperately needed at that point.
And then, for several months, I continued on my journey while he let his imagination get to work on creating the concept for my photo. A lot happened in the time that passed between April and August. We continued talking, sharing thoughts, feelings, symbols and ideas, while Diogo sketched, researched, and gradually pulled together his vision.
By August I was most of the way through therapy, and starting to really feel like I was getting somewhere with it. Everyday life felt less of a struggle, and I’d resigned myself to maybe never having all the answers, instead of endlessly fighting myself and everyone else. We shot the photo in Bourne Wood, near Farnham in Surrey, and Recom Farmhouse created the CGI concrete monolith – Diogo’s symbol of that hard, brutal intrusion into the landscape of my life, that I’ve had to learn to live with rather than futilely punching at with my fists.
There’s a dark weariness and isolation in the photo. I’m exhausted, despairing, and covered in mud, but I’m hopeful. I’m learning to let go, to comfort myself, and to let the moss take root. And I’m held by the starry universe of the ground below me, seeking for a place of safety and comfort. I can’t look towards the future just yet, but it’s out there, beyond the wall.
There are so many elements of the photo that mean really personal things to me, but what I love too is how those around me see it – and particularly what Diogo has to say:
For Sarah’s portrait, I was interested in capturing a state of mind rather than a specific point in time. It’s not about the past, the present, or the future. In a way it encapsulates all three, depending on the way you look at it, but to me it became important to create a photo that referenced various points in time of her journey. When I look at it, I see an incredibly beautiful woman who is learning to trust that the ground underneath her will hold her, despite changes to her personal landscape. It’s so easy for all of us to forget about trust; trust in ourselves, trust in other people and the environment that surrounds us. The first time I saw Sarah, I really felt her pain and could see doubt was very much present in her mind, so I knew I wanted to incorporate this in the portrait.
One of my best friends said the photo feels dark and lonely, and I guess I’ve felt a lot like that in recent months – though not for a lack of loving people around me. My husband says it has a Stranger Things feel for him, as if I’m in my own personal Upside Down – disconnected, parallel to the real world but not currently quite part of it.
To me it feels like a kind of acceptance of everything that has happened. It is what it is. For better or worse, I survived – albeit with plenty of metaphorical dirt under my fingernails and twigs in my hair. In many ways, it’s an emotional snapshot of everything that’s slowly begun falling into place for me recently. That it’s okay to grieve and to struggle. That it’s not weak to need to rest, heal and recover before embarking on the dark, wild forest of whatever lays ahead. That I am who I am, regardless of the changes to my landscape.
Maybe it’s all just been ridiculously self-indulgent, I panicked as we made our way back towards London. But then maybe all therapy, and self-care, and transformative journeys of self-compassion and self-acceptance are self-indulgent. Maybe, when it comes to our own mental health and personal growth, we’re not nearly self-indulgent enough. Maybe we all need to take a step back and reframe our own situations. To take them out of our own heads, where they drive us slowly mad, and quite literally see them through someone else’s lens.
I see new things every time I look at Diogo’s portrait of me. I know its meaning and significance will change and grow as I change and grow. It will always be a reminder of deep, deep darkness, as well as strength, resilience and hope. But I can’t thank Diogo enough for stepping in when words failed me.
Find out more about Diogo Duarte’s fine art photography, including his psychological portrait service, PhotoBard, at: www.diogo-duarte.com