To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Photographer Nicolas Bruno has suffered from sleep paralysis since he was seven years old. The condition can manifest itself in different ways. In Bruno’s case, when he enters REM sleep, his mind becomes conscious, or awake, but his body remains asleep. During these recurring episodes, he experiences shortness of breath or pressure on his chest and the feeling that he’s being choked or is going to be killed. Screaming shadow figures menace him in bed. He's unable to move, and the state seems to last hours. Sometimes it stops because he awakens; other times he moves into another dream. All of it is out of his control.
When Bruno was fifteen, he began experiencing sleep paralysis almost every night. To help process the resulting stress, he kept a dream journal and then turned to drawing and photography. At first, he photographed mostly landscapes and abandoned places. Over time, he started making work directly inspired by what he goes through during sleep paralysis. “Transforming my experiences with sleep paralysis into artwork not only helps me understand the dreams,” Bruno says. “It gives me a universal voice to speak about something almost impossible to describe with words. After I complete a photo shoot and see my final image, I feel so relieved to have transformed a once uncontrollable nightmare into something positive and tangible.”
To achieve his eerie dreamscapes, Bruno mixes careful preparation with post-production. He fabricates most of the props and costumes. “I deconstruct old furniture or check the lumberyard dumpster for materials," he says. “Usually, I can knock out a prop in two days. For my costumes, I either create them from scratch or check thrift stores for clothes I can modify."
Bruno uses himself and friends as models. He explains: “The characters I portray within my work are figures I’ve documented within my sleep paralysis episodes. Faceless men in suits often stand at the foot of my bed, and women in dresses might float across my bedroom to shriek in my ear. Sometimes I'm grasped by hands that attempt to drag me off of my bed. These characters reoccur, transform, and sometimes reveal more about themselves as time goes on.”
“To express my relationship with the figures I see in dreams,” he continues, “I model for both protagonists and antagonists in my compositions. When I'm not modeling, or when there's a female figure, I ask my girlfriend, close friends, or family members to become characters. It’s important to have the people I care about in my works; their positivity and support helps me move forward.”
While this process makes for a lot of work, Bruno has streamlined it over the years by necessary practice of having a DIY production model—making the final photographs, which he produces despite the hurdles, even more satisfying to complete.
After Bruno finishes casting, props, and wardrobe, he searches for a shot's location, such as woods or marshlands. Then it's just about waiting for the weather to bring “moody clouds and ambient white light.” When the time is right, Bruno says, “I pack up my truck with props and gear. After an hour or two of setting up, I shoot my concept for about 45 minutes.” He keeps his shooting time short so that changes in light or tide levels don't cause issues during photo compositing.
Depending on the complexity of the image, post-production time ranges from one to five hours to composite two to eight photos. “I begin the editing process by importing my camera roll into Adobe Lightroom CC," he says, "where I select the important images from the shoot and make basic adjustments. I export my selections into Adobe Photoshop CC, where I create a master document and import the selections as separate layers. I mask the layers together to create an image that expresses my original vision. I save this unedited file for future use and create a separate version with color toning. I fine-tune a third version of the image for large-format printing.”
“My absolute favorite Photoshop tool is the Pen tool," he says. "When I first started using Photoshop, I remember being so frustrated with creating selections that were precise and believable in the compositing process. Once I learned Pen tool selections, a world of opportunity opened up. I could finally create a true-to-life selection of a model or prop and place it wherever I wanted in a composition. Feathering each selection to match the sharpness of your subject makes your edits seamless and convincing. If you take the time to study the way your camera lens renders edges at different apertures, you can practice matching your selection feathering to make a flawless composite.”
Bruno shares his images on social media, where connecting with a worldwide community of fellow sleep-paralysis sufferers has been a huge comfort. “Writers, musicians, artists, and ordinary people have all expressed their stories to me. It’s been encouraging to know that other sufferers are finding positive outlets to express these terrifying personal experiences.”
Though Bruno still suffers from regular episodes of sleep paralysis, he has learned to minimize the contributing factors, which include excessive stress, too much screen time before bed, an irregular sleep schedule, and sleeping in unfamiliar locations. A white noise machine and, surprisingly, sleeping on his side with his heart elevated help. “If I fall asleep on my back,” he says, “I go directly into a sleep paralysis episode. If I wake up on my back during an episode, I may experience visual hallucinations due to having a full visual span of my bedroom.”
Bruno has also learned to take the episodes in stride. “When I first started suffering," he says, "I would do everything in my power to fight back against the visual and physical sensations that I’d endure in the dream. As I’ve become used to the feelings, I’ve found that riding out the experience subdues the terrifying nature of the dream and can leave room for analysis, and even a quick exit. If you allow the fear to win, you’ll never have control of the situation. My advice is to build up your courage to face these dreams head on, whether it be through strength, religion, logic, or spiritualism.”
Bruno’s take on dreams is quite optimistic, considering what he’s been through. “Whether you experience sleep paralysis or not, I encourage everyone to start documenting your dreams in a journal," he says. "We are so fortunate to experience something so otherworldly. After a few months of documenting, you might uncover something about yourself you never knew.”
All photographs © Nicolas Bruno.