PHLEARN MagazineTransforming Nightmares into Hauntingly Beautiful Works of Art with Nicolas Bruno

Transforming Nightmares into Hauntingly Beautiful Works of Art with Nicolas Bruno

Most of us have never heard of sleep paralysis before, but it is a terrifying condition Nicolas Bruno has had to live with since he was a teenager. Almost every night after he goes to sleep, Nicolas finds himself in a half awake, half asleep nightmarish dream world that he can’t get out of. He’s trapped there, and all he can do is watch the frightening figures around him and wait for the events to play out as he lies there paralyzed. It is a terrible affliction, but somehow, over the years, he’s found a way to turn his suffering into a positive experience.

Nicolas uses photography, woodworking, costume design, and creative storytelling to bring his nightmares to life. It is a form of therapy that not only helps him deal with the emotional and physical stress brought on by sleep paralysis, but has led him to meet and bond with others suffering from various stages of the condition.

We talk to Nicolas about life with sleep paralysis and how he uses art to battle his, very literal, inner demons.

Can you tell our readers about the sleep paralysis that you suffer from and how it impacts your work?


I’ve been suffering from sleep paralysis for most of my life. It took over my life around age 15 when I would get it every single night no matter what I did. In school, I would be trying to learn and trying to stay awake during class and I just couldn’t because I would go through this horrible thing every single night. I was having terrible nightmares. I didn’t know how to talk about it, but I had an affliction. I grew up in a very superstitious family, so I always had that in my head as a kid.

It wasn’t until I started turning my dream experiences into my artwork that I was able to speak about it on a universal level. Sharing my work to the public helped me locate the information I needed to figure out that I’m experiencing something that many people also go through. It was a breath of fresh air to know I am not alone. The process of transforming my dream journal sketches to my artwork became my form of therapy. It also allowed me to spread awareness of the condition and help others feel less alone. I often prompt sufferers to try turning their negative experiences into something positive.

How and when did you turn to photography as an outlet?


When I was in school, I was never really an academic student. I was more of an art-driven student. I loved drawing; I loved making things; I loved photography. Photography was the one thing I was really excelling at. I hadn’t really found my release for my sleep paralysis until my teacher said to me, “Why don’t you start keeping a dream journal and seeing what’s going on?” He was basically my mentor, and I went to him when I was dealing with problems. He pushed me to start documenting my dreams and experimenting with combining different mediums into my photos. That’s really how I started using photography as my outlet.

I began working on this project privately, but I only began sharing the underlying work at the beginning of my college career. That’s when I started putting everything online and it started gathering intrigue from artists and dreamers alike. Photography was already part of me, so it was entirely natural to use this medium to transform the negative dreams into tangible works of art that I can look at and say, “Yes, this is what I’ve been going through.” I can show somebody else exactly what I am experiencing.

Can you explain a little bit more about what it is exactly, what happens to you?


A sleep paralysis sufferer will start to enter REM sleep, and during this transition, the mind will wake up. You become conscious, but your body stays asleep and you start to dream while you’re awake. While this happens, the DMT dream chemical is presently flowing in your brain, so you start to hallucinate, essentially dreaming while awake. Upon realizing that you’re awake, you’ll try to get up, but your body will be completely frozen. Breathing feels almost impossible, and you will try to fight back against what is to come. You’ll see shadow people walking through your room. You’ll feel this horrible pressure on your chest. You’ll have hands grabbing at your throat. You’ll hear static or screaming or voices. Maybe you’ll have somebody looming above you at the foot of your bed, and they are about to kill you. At the end, you will either burst out of your sleep, wake up in a cold sweat, or possibly enter a different dream.

It’s different for everyone. Some people have seen lost loved ones. Some people see silhouettes. I see figures, not really so defined. Some people will get physically embraced by them. There is always a high possibility to experience something otherworldly.

It’s absolutely terrifying. Sleep paralysis experiences can also weave into lucid dreaming, which enters a whole other category. Anything is possible.

There’s nothing that you can do? You’re just kind of in that moment and that’s it. You’re stuck there until it passes?


You have to ride it out, or find a way to wake yourself up. I’m not able to do this, but other people are able to try focusing on wiggling their fingers or toes. You have to focus on rational thought, try to sit up or try to focus on breathing. These tricks can help you ease out of the dream and wake up. What keeps a sufferer locked in the experience is the emotion of fear. Once you’re terrified, and you’re focusing on that fear, that negative energy can keep you there. Once you dismiss yourself from the situation and convince yourself that it isn’t real, you start to wake up.

Are all of your images based, to some extent, on a dream that you’ve had?


My images are either based on a singular dream or multiple dreams that I’ve woven together. I will tell the story of an experience through symbolism, direct observation, or translation of a feeling through color or location. When I experience a dream that is repetitive or isn’t as content-heavy, I may log a small moment that was completely new or unique. I will save that idea and then combine that with another one to weave into a different concept.

A lot of your images have something to do with water. Is that a recurring theme?


Water, to me, is the unconscious mind or the realm of sleep. Being above the water represents the conscious mind or wakefulness. A lot of my characters are halfway submerged, trapped between the worlds of being asleep or awake. Ominous figures and props protrude from the sleep realm, and the wakeful protagonists within the images generally are tormented or trying to escape. I enjoy depicting the play between the conscious/subconscious mind. The water can also symbolize the suffocating feeling within sleep paralysis, where it almost feels that you are drowning in your own bed.

You make the costumes and props yourself and you do a lot of the characters, recurring characters. What’s the story behind some of your characters and how you get these shots?


The characters that I portray are either the characters that I see directly or are constructed from dream symbolism. The physical forms that I see are generally faceless or they have a black suit or a bowler hat on. The women characters that I use in my work often symbolize the Old Hag, which is a stereotypical sleep paralysis experience that has been documented through history. An old ghoulish woman or witch in a dress will enter the room and torment you with screams and physical harm. One of my most terrifying experiences was an encounter with the Hag.

After defining a character, I will make my costumes from scratch, or I’ll go to a local thrift store to see if they have anything similar that I can modify. I like to have my hand in everything I create, whether it’s making the costumes or building my props. I make everything in my studio, and then I’ll bring it out to my location. Once everything is set, I will begin to express what I’ve been dreaming of.

How much are you doing in post? What’s your photo editing process like?


Photoshop gives me the ability to stitch multiple images together and modify tones. Without a budget, multiples of certain props, or having models on call, I turn to photographing myself and props in different locations to be stitched together in post. My process allows me to model for multiple characters, paint the scene with a smoke bomb, or duplicate an object.

After the final shot is complete, I expand the frame of my image by shooting slightly up, down, left, right, and then composite the image together to create a larger file. When I composite my models and props, I’m not necessarily cutting and pasting. Everything has to happen in front of my camera, in that one spot, and then I layer each shot on top of each other and piece it together in the way that I need. Then I’ll add my color touch to it, subdue certain hues and then pop certain colors. I make the whites crisp enough where there is still information in the highlights, and finish the image off with a faded look.

At what point did you start to consider yourself a photographer and an artist?


When I started high school, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist. It was an interest of mine, but I was suffering so regularly that it was more of a choice to make my parents think I had a direction. I was pretty much lost. I was depressed. I couldn’t focus my energy on school work because I wouldn’t sleep for two days at a time. I would go to math class and perform poorly. I often asked myself “Why am I even here? What am I doing?” It wasn’t until I found photography that I saw my direction in life. It gave me the ambition to go forward with the help of something I truly love.

I can imagine it had to have been super hard. I mean if you’re not sleeping for days on end, how are you functioning in life?


A lot of my time in class was a blur. I’m just happy to have gone through my lowest-lows back then. Finding my ground in art has given me confidence and a positive outlook on my future. Now when I face negativity in life, I am reminded that it can’t be as terrible as how I used to feel.

Imagery can be used as a universal language to express ideas to anyone, and I’m thankful to be born in a time where I can share my work around the world. This, to me, is so unique and I’m so grateful to be able to share something that I had locked up in my head. I’m able to open up my mind and express my visions to anybody and receive their feedback. Art is rewarding, it’s playful, and I enjoy the academic aspects of it – figuring out new ideas, building new things and running into new challenges. I think I’ve found something that gave me a purpose and that’s what keeps me functioning.

Where did you start sharing the images first?


I started sharing them with my friends and family. I didn’t put my works out there because I was nervous to have people critique them. Being self taught, I wasn’t so great at the technical aspects of photography, which held me back. I also wasn’t sure that people would understand what I’m trying to express and that my work would be dismissed.

When I made my work public, I started sharing on Flickr. Then, I started a Tumblr account to share ideas, but I never took it seriously. Flickr was the place where I started networking with artists because I was sharing on groups. From there, I made my own Facebook page and Facebook became my new place to share stuff. I only started taking Instagram seriously a couple of years ago. Instagram has become my main platform due to its prioritization of photography and increase in user engagement. I recently received a verification badge and I hope to continue the growth of my audience within the Instagram community.

What was the response online when you did take the leap to share them publicly?


I was relieved to receive positive feedback from art lovers and dreamers alike. I am not the most outgoing person. It took a lot of energy to get myself to share my experiences with the world. Sharing deeply personal thoughts and public speaking have always been difficult for me, but it has become easier to express myself through the universal language of art. Through my project, I hope to inspire others to share their personal struggles through a positive creative outlet like art, music, or writing.

Now that you’ve put it out there, have you found that you’re meeting a lot of people who are going through the same thing?


It has been a pleasure to receive so many stories and messages of thanks from other dreamers. I’ve received many emails from other artists now making imagery inspired by their sleep paralysis experiences. It’s heartwarming to know that I am not alone, that other people are going through this as well. Once you start speaking things into the universe, I feel that your sentiments can gravitate back to you.

What are some of your biggest influences and who are some other artists that you most admire?


I look at a lot of 19th-century painters for influence on my compositions and color palettes. I don’t necessarily look at photography as much as other mediums. I find that other mediums offer artistic prompts that haven’t transcended into photography yet. Photography is a fairly young artistic medium. There are so many new avenues to explore, especially with new technology and new art movements. I’ve also been looking at old occult texts and freemasonry for ideas of how to develop symbolism in my own work.

My favorite painter, Caspar David Friedrich, is a 19th-century painter. He created beautiful yet ominous scenes with a unique signature color palette. He also used silhouetted and subdued antiquated figures in some of his work. His creations broke barriers and brought a dreamlike vision to the world of art. I strive to emulate his masterful presentation of true-to-life scenes with a surreal twist.

You’ve done gallery shows, exhibitions all over the place; your work has been on display in Italy and New York. How do you maintain such a busy schedule?


I work for myself so that gives me the opportunity to pursue multiple projects. I am my own business, but I’m not just a photographer. As an emerging artist, you have to be your own agent. I will reach out to galleries, exhibitions, submit to contests. I work as hard as I can, as much as I can to get myself out there and share my story and work.

I have another exhibition coming up in February 2019 at Haven Gallery, in Northport, New York. I’ll be exhibiting new work there and hopefully unveiling a new project. I’m producing a virtual reality experience that takes the viewer into a simulated sleep paralysis experience. If I can secure funding for the final product, this project will be revealed on the opening evening of the exhibition.

You’ve said you keep a dream journal. Starting with recording your dreams, what are your creative habits leading up to a final image?


The majority of my ideas start with my dream journal. Right now I’m also using a chalkboard. I’ve found that the chalkboard allows me to more free-form and not waste paper. From there, I’ll make a final drawing and write down the props that I need, location ideas, and some of the tones I want to capture. Maybe the costume that I have to wear or the type of weather that I will be seeking.

One of the questions we like to ask photographers is how they deal with creative blocks. Do you find that because your inspiration comes from dreams that you can’t stop, do you still have creative blocks?


My creative blocks are a little bit different. They’re caused by not being able to physically do them because it just doesn’t make sense in real life – either I can’t get the budget for what I need to do or I can’t get to the location I need to be in for a certain concept. I try to keep those ideas on the back burner.

I often get stuck with some ideas I can’t put into visuals. Sometimes I have a concept in my head that makes sense, but it doesn’t look right in the physical world. In order to fight my creative blocks, I’ll do a bunch of Google image searches, or maybe go onto scribd.com to look up a bunch of old books or PDFs. I’ll search Leonardo da Vinci’s Codices or I’ll look at woodcut books, carving books, anything that comes from the past that I can look to for aids in symbolism.

If research doesn’t do it, I’ll go and explore. I will sometimes let location itself lend its influence to what I’m about to create. For example, maybe I’ll find a ditch somewhere and I’ll say, “Oh, I can fill that with water and do something there.” Or maybe there’s a broken down tree somewhere that I can incorporate. I think breaking a creative rut is cured through going out into the world and exploring, scouring the internet, and transforming old ideas into something new.

Your approach is more work through it, then?


Yes, definitely. Exploring different mediums to me is very important. For artists, exploring a new medium can help stir up your brain a little bit. When you’re working with your hands and new materials, you’re engaged with what you’re doing and that intrigue might help birth a new idea in your main medium.

Do you have a favorite book that you would recommend to other creative people?


I would recommend the book Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke. It’s a very small book but it has amazing guidelines for motivation and gaining perspective on life. It’s a unique story and it’s a pretty easy read. It could really help anybody. You don’t have to be a literal knight in shining armor to be a hero to someone else or yourself.

Do you have a favorite image that you’ve taken?


It’s hard to pick a favorite. I would say the most successful image I’ve shot is Sorgere, the image where I am climbing the submerged ladder. This image was the true start of the project, where even the act of creating the image was almost reminiscent of the sleep paralysis experience itself.

I was out there in the pond kicking as hard as I could to stay afloat with the ladder. I wore a full suit and shoes which became soaked with water. The weight of the clothes made it increasingly difficult to stay afloat. I kicked my feet has hard as I could while holding the buoyant ladder up, hoping that my camera timer was taking the shots that I needed, and also hoping that I had enough energy to swim back to the shore. That image was probably the most difficult to create and I really enjoy the end result.

This image a good basis for how I like to express the project itself – where the ladder is the transition between being asleep and being awake, and the character is stuck between them. No matter how high the character climbs, he will slowly run out of room to escape from the depths below.

Nicolas’ exhibition will take place February 23rd, 2019, at Haven Gallery, 155 Main St., Northport, NY. If you’re in the area, be sure to check it out. You can also keep up with his latest projects on his Instagram and website.

Jennifer Berube

Jen is the Editor-in-Chief of PHLEARN Magazine, where she helps shape inspiring stories and handy tips for aspiring and seasoned photographers. She has worked as a photography writer for many years, contributing to numerous industry-leading publications. Proudly Canadian, sometimes globetrotter, self-taught photographer, Jen is temporarily settled in Spain.

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