Optically active nanomaterials promise to advance a range of biophotonic techniques through nanoscale optical effects and integration of multiple imaging and therapeutic modalities. Here, we report the development of porphysomes; nanovesicles formed from self-assembled porphyrin bilayers that generated large, tunable extinction coefficients, structure-dependent fluorescence self-quenching and unique photothermal and photoacoustic properties. Porphysomes enabled the sensitive visualization of lymphatic systems using photoacoustic tomography. Near-infrared fluorescence generation could be restored on dissociation, creating opportunities for low-background fluorescence imaging. As a result of their organic nature, porphysomes were enzymatically biodegradable and induced minimal acute toxicity in mice with intravenous doses of 1,000 mg kg−1. In a similar manner to liposomes, the large aqueous core of porphysomes could be passively or actively loaded. Following systemic administration, porphysomes accumulated in tumours of xenograft-bearing mice and laser irradiation induced photothermal tumour ablation. The optical properties and biocompatibility of porphysomes demonstrate the multimodal potential of organic nanoparticles for biophotonic imaging and therapy.