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An interview with the man who recreates his sleep paralysis in photos

Nicolas Bruno, a 22-year-old photographer from New York, fights the monsters in his nightmares not with charms or holy water, but rather photography.

The creative has been suffering from sleep paralysis – a phenomenon wherein the body shuts down, but the mind conjures strange and terrifying images – since he was a teen.

Those who experience this condition have seen malevolent beings present in the room or have felt an invisible force sitting down on their chest. All the while being unable to do anything about it.

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For Bruno, it got so bad that he eventually fell into depression. That is, until he found photography.

“I’ve always been into photography, and it became my way of battering through my terrorizing sleep paralysis experiences and expressing my creative conscience in ways that I never thought I could,” he told io9.

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Now, he recreates his nightmares in surreal, macabre pictures using random props as a way to confront his nightmares.

Others who have also gone through similar traumatising situations have found solace in Bruno’s work.

“I’ve gotten so many responses from people who have had these dreams and didn’t know what they meant. I think it’s my little mission to spread the word of this condition.”

We recently had the opportunity to interview Bruno to know more about his nightmares and his photography. Disclaimer: what you are about to read will send chills down your spine. Do not read this alone in the dark.

Could you share with us your first time experiencing sleep paralysis? What was it like? What did you feel at the time?

“The earliest experience that I can recall is as far back as being five or six years old, waking up in my childhood bedroom being paralyzed during an afternoon nap.

“I remember being startled with confusion as a figure walked from my doorway, skimming my bedside, and heading towards the window. I remember the figure gazing outward, and then with an abrupt rotation towards me, I woke from the episode.

“This dream always stuck out to me through my youth with an undecipherable significance, only now am I able to confirm what I actually experienced was a sleep paralysis episode.”

Which episode was the worst?

“Each episode is equally terrifying, some more than others, but my experience with the classic ‘Old Hag’ figure (see Old Hag Syndrome) truly stands out as the most physically and emotionally draining experience that I’ve ever had.

“Upon waking into the paralysis, I felt a presence in the room which sent me into panic. In my peripheral vision, I spotted a figure of a woman in a dress that loomed in the corner of the room by the doorway. This realisation sent my mind racing with fear.

“Immediately, I attempted to scream and break out of the paralysis, but as I took action, I was instantly grappled by a plethora of shadow hands that protruded from under my covers, bracing me to the bed.

“My attempt at escaping caused the woman to shriek with eardrum bursting static. She began her journey towards my bedside by hovering ominously across the room. I felt a suffocating pressure building as she moved towards me. After what seemed like a half hour of fighting with the woman’s tormenting scream and energy, I broke free from the paralysis and escaped to the lower level of my house.

“Little did I know, I was still dreaming. The dream lapsed into a second sleep paralysis episode that repeated with more intensity and horrific sensation. At the moment of waking up, I knew that this condition was starting to take over my life.”

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Take us through your creative process, especially in transforming abstract concepts, such as dreams and nightmares, into something real, like a photograph.

“I have made a habit of logging all of my sleep paralysis experiences in a dream journal. I will write/sketch out what I’ve experienced through depictions of characters, finding symbolism for the emotions I’ve felt, and jotting down key words from my recollection.

“These sketches will create the basis for my photographic composition. After choosing one or multiple experiences to emulate, I will sketch out a rough drawing of how I will compose the photograph, taking note of what props or costumes that I will need to create or find. Once I scout the location for the photograph, I will return with my camera and props to set the stage.

“I model for the majority of my compositions, sometimes becoming multiple characters within the work, so setting my camera’s shutter on an interval timer allows me to be in the front of the camera. The camera captures my performance, changing my location or costume multiple times, moving props to different areas, and sometimes painting the scene with a smoke bomb.

“Becoming a singular character or multiple figures allows me to physically relive the struggles within the dreams, and allows me to have my hand in each part of the image creation. Once the shoot is complete, I will use a layering process to piece together the final composition to share with the world.

“This therapeutic process of translating dream to image results in a positive and tangible way to show the world what I am experiencing.”

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What are the biggest challenges in depicting your sleep paralysis in pictures?

“I am constantly pioneering ways to create high quality and seamless compositions with the absolute minimum amount of post processing and no budget. My philosophy for post-production follows simple rules – everything in the image must happen in front of the camera and during that shoot.

“If the camera shifts in the wind or sinks slightly into the mud, I will have to redo the shoot. I am reluctant to pull pieces from other images that I’ve shot, or even worse, source images from the internet to aid in compositions. My interest in photography began by primarily working in Photoshop, and now that I have engineered ways to physically perform tricks and stunts, I am forcefully veering away from over-the-top post production.

“I use post processing to avoid finding multiple models or having to carry large quantities of props to locations. In the future, I am hoping to replace my digital gear with a large format camera and colour 4×5 film.”

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What are you working on next?

“I am in the process of creating a traveling interactive exhibit that allows the viewer to experience an episode of sleep paralysis through virtual reality and sound engineering. This project will hopefully be completed at the end of this year. I am planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign once the prototype is finished.

“Aside from this project, I am hoping to travel and create the sleep paralysis experiences of other individuals across the world. Student loan payments are hindering me from traveling at the moment, but I’m hoping that I will have more exhibitions in the future to aid me in this regard.”

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Nicolas Bruno is currently holding an exhibition entitled Between Realms at Haven Gallery from February 25 until April 2. To know more, head on over here.

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