Interview With Nicolas Bruno The Sleepless Photographer

Interview With Nicolas Bruno The Sleepless Photographer

Our dreams are often wildly confusing with imagery many of us don't understand and memories which seem to fade the instant our eyes open. Photographer Nicolas Bruno suffers from a condition called sleep paralysis which keeps him in a halfway state between being asleep and being awake. Through his incredible and haunting images Nicolas Bruno recreates the experiences from his dreamscape. This week we interview him to get a better idea of the struggle and the process behind his art.


1. I’d like to begin by asking you to explain what sleep paralysis is. It has shaped and influenced your entire body of work so it would seem only appropriate for us all to understand how the condition affects you beyond serving as an artistic inspiration.

Sleep paralysis is an experience in which the individual becomes conscious and is left immobile in a state between being awake and asleep. The wakeful mind separates itself from the mobile functions of the sleeping body and the individual begins to experience visual and auditory hallucinations - essentially dreaming while awake. Sleep paralysis has been an ongoing occurrence for me ever since the age of 15. I have experienced bone chilling hallucinations and extreme terror during these dreams: faceless silhouetted figures, embraces from shadow-like hands, warping of reality around me - all while being completely paralyzed in the midst of being awake and sleeping. It took a huge toll on my well being for the majority of my life during my sixteenth year, but I have since been able to cope with it by transforming these night terrors into a source of inspiration for my artwork.

2. How did you stumble into photography and at what point did you decide to express your experiences with sleep paralysis through photography?

I began to analyze my dream journal and experiences and brought them into consideration when I attended my photography classes in high school, often creating cinematic interpretations within my head of what the dreams contained. I started to experiment with my dream recollections and created a concentration of work in which I was able to finally warp my anxiety into a positive product and express my vision to the world. Photography has taken the role of my full time therapist ever since then.


3. Besides sleep paralysis, do you draw inspiration for your images from any other sources?

I often look to painters and sculptors of the past for inspiration. By studying the form and execution of these masterful works of art, I will be able to directly improve the way I create the composition of my photographs. Artists that I enjoy include Caravàggio, Caspar Friedrich, Jacques-Louis David, and even contemporary painters such as Gilles Beloeil. Due to the nature of my artwork, my craft has also extended to the world of sculpture and costume design. To create props and clothing for my characters, I will often receive a creative spark from studying history books and photo archives to derive a blend of history and combine my own twist on the subject.

4. I have trouble recalling regular everyday dreams. Are there any routines you have in place for recording yours?

I often keep a journal or pad of paper on the edge of my nightstand so I can begin writing the moment that I awake from a dream. It is extremely crucial to me that I begin documenting the dream the instance that I wake up. I will sketch a quick drawing of what I have experienced, rather than attempting to describe the experience with words. The act of sketching the dream will also play on the format of the final composition for the image that has yet to be photographed, thus killing two birds with one stone.


5. Could you take us through the typical planning process for your images?

I often gestate six or seven ideas in mind at a time before I venture out to shoot an image, which include my vision of subject matter, location, and method of execution. Photography has taken me down a long path of teaching myself to create in other mediums, so you will often find me tinkering with props and materials in my shop, or stitching up a coat or cloak on the sewing machine. After getting a basis for the image from my sketches I will pinpoint the setting that I assign the image, gather my props and costumes and camera gear, then set off on foot to my location.

6. Are you the sort of photographer who plans for every minuscule detail or are you more spontaneous with your creations?

My creative process generally begins with in depth planning, but the shoot often begins to dovetail with a bit of sporadic experimentation. The setting for my photograph is often the catalyst for change in my original ideas and aspirations for the final photo. A location may change due to weather patterns and unexpected alteration by nature or humans (abandoned buildings in particular) so I always give myself a generalized plan for the image I will attempt to execute without depending on too many specific details of the location itself.


7. The scenery always seems to compliment your subject matter very well. Does the concept come first and then you choose the perfect location, or do you find the location first and build the concept around it?

In my brain, the search for scenery is on autopilot at every moment. I am more quick to assign a concept to the list of locations that I have in the back of my mind or in my notebook, although it is not always the case. Exploring is a major component to my process and at times I will be so awestruck the a discovery of a landscape that I begin to spawn new concepts that derive from past experiences and properly suit my new found scenery.

8.Perhaps a touchy subject for some photographers, how do you feel about digital manipulation and post processing to help photographers achieve these surreal images? Is it cheating because it didn't come straight from the camera?

Digital manipulation is a wonderful tool in moderation. My philosophy to post production is that everything that you are using to create your image must happen in front of the camera, not pulled off of the internet or an image search engine. I strategically shoot my images on a tripod and often will duplicate props by placing them in different areas and shooting separate pictures of them, then weaving them together in post. I am not opposed to this tool, because I would not be able to express some of the ideas that I have created without this process.


9. What do you hope people take away from viewing your images? Is there a particular message you would like to get across to the viewers?

My work is embedded with to give my viewers the ability to openly interpret the story line and concept of each piece. Individuals who have experienced sleep paralysis will be able to pick up on specific symbolism that I implement within my work, but I do not create my artwork specifically for them. I aim to give the viewers who have not experienced these night terrors a visual taste of what lies within the in between realm of sleep and consciousness.

10. Having successfully defined a signature style for yourself, would you have any tips for aspiring artists or photographers on how they can develop a style and vision of their own?

Photography is medium where you are able to combine rational thought with wild imagination in a realistic manner, where as in other mediums this combination can be less effective in presentation. Use this to your advantage. Pursue the ideas that you keep on the back burner of your mind, even if they might seem strange to you. Do not become frustrated with yourself if an idea does not come to fruition in the exact way that you planned - this gives you the option to create something completely different and independent that may lead your work down an entirely new path. These are all important things to take into consideration, but the most important thing to remember is that the price and abundance of your photography gear will not make you a better photographer. It is more than possible to create stunning works of art with just your SLR and one or two lenses. Working with the minimal will force you to hone your craft to a point where you will disregard the need to buy excessive lenses and lighting equipment.

We would like to thank Nicolas Bruno for sharing the story behind his life and work with us, and if you'd like to see more of his work or would like to stay up to date on his latest projects, follow the links below.

Nicolas Bruno  |  Facebook  |  Instagram  | Flickr

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Paal's picture

This is the same recycled garbage from Kyle Thompson, Ben Zank and Sarah Ann Loreth, who all ripped off Rodney Smith. Let's not pretend like this is actually anything noteworthy.

Edward Porter's picture

Your references are well placed Paal. However, your final image appears very underexposed and murky. Luckily, Fstoppers has some great tutorials on nondestructive workflows that can help recover what you've lost.

David Vaughn's picture

Any helpfulness in your post is so deeply hidden under a layer of snark that it verges on being nonsensical.

Edward Porter's picture

Considering Paal's cancerous remark, my reply was a playful reminder of the 'constructive' aspect of criticism. I enjoy how <i>relatively</i> trollfree Fstoppers is and would rather they find another community to spew on.

Brandon Bandy's picture

the thing is, these photos are cliché, and so many other people are making photos that look so similar it becomes hard to tell all of them apart. This article treats them as if they are something new.

Felipe_Paredes's picture

Here is your star * and is not an ironic one

Regan Shorter's picture

I think this hits it on the head. I feel like the only unique thing about his story is his condition... not the portraits. :/

Paal's picture

"They" speaking here. Unfortunately, several of these photographers that share an extremely similar subject matter and aesthetic style have been making headlines on photo blogs. As cancerous as my comment may seem, I'm tired of this copy and pasted drivel being acknowledged and celebrated as anything worth any sort of creative merit. They are not adding anything new to the photographic world, there is absolutely -no- originality or creativity involved. I encourage you to take a look at the others I mentioned above. You will find that they all borrow heavily from each other.

Do I come off as trolling, cancerous and nonconstructive? Probably. But I have reasons for saying what I am. For a photo blog that has an opportunity to make a large impact on developing photographers this is a poor choice of content.

Sebastian Lee's picture

Why is it, that as soon as someone posts a non-positive comment it's automatically treated as trolling? When I first clicked the link I scrolled thru the photos and thought...."ah these are nice....very Rodney-Smith-ish". (and I'm sure someone prior to that and then someone prior to that) But then I read the article and thought the same thing as you Paal. Much like the old SouthPark line "Simpsons did it", the same applies for 99.9999% of photography, so the fact that Mr Bruno's photos share the same subject matter and style of previous photographers is not surprising. The nauseating read about "struggle", loaded with a ton of art school pretense is what ruined it for me. Sometimes a photograph is just a photograph. Sure it's not as good of a story as "I'm inspired by Rodney Smith and have a hard time sleeping and this is my work", but lets move past the drama and face the fact that sometimes a photograph is just a photograph and not just like everyone is entitled to compliment a photo, why attack the person who gives their opinion by calling their comments "cancerous"? Was the point not valid? And most importantly was it not simply someone opinion?

Edward Porter's picture

It's amusing how perception becomes polarized and subtly is lost. Perhaps you were blinded by a distaste for Nicolas' work and thought I was trying to silence dissent. In reality though, I was only discussing Paal's mannerisms (which do not fair well in business).

There are many ways to tell your partner they are gaining weight, but very few of those options are effective.

Edward Porter's picture

Again, there is merit in your words Paal. My only emphasis was on how you conduct yourself. Unfortunately--when it comes to getting paid--ranting like the homeless isn't a trait clients look for. Besides, fighting the ocean's current is pointless; your energies are best spent elsewhere.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

It must be exhausting being that angry all the time!

Mr Blah's picture

Yes but it's great to loose weight!!

Jared Lawson's picture

One of the better photography interviews I have read in recent years, I too struggle with a sleep disorder - is it what draws us to art/photography? <a href="" rel="nofollow">California Portrait Photographer </a>