Sleepers in New York Public Spaces

Photographs and Text by Antonio Bolfo

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"Snap!" The sound of the shutter was never louder. I swore that it would wake her up, but it didn't, she just kept sleeping. The swaying train car of the LIRR almost knocked me into her, and I am still surprised it didn't, considering I was six inches from her nose. I stood back up and was greeted by the familiar glares, tsk's, and shaking heads. That was the normal reaction I got when photographing sleeping people in New York's public places. I was on assignment for the New York Times Magazine on a story of people fulfilling their sleep deprivation in public. Thus I was to photograph the plethora of snoring drones that lay dormant across the City's landscape. This was one of the most difficult assignments I have ever had. I am a close photographer, meaning I like to literally get in close metric proximity to my subjects. To do this to a sleeping person is terrifying. It is invasive, and the outcome of being discovered by the subject is a horrific event, for both parties. To be fair, it only happened twice. The first time I received verbal abuse, a comment on my sexual preference (totally inaccurate), and a threat of police intervention. The second time sent the subject retreating into his seat in pure horror, like a 60's Dracula film (think bulging eyes and hand over gaping mouth). But like I said, most of the people I photographed never woke up, so overall the hardest customers were the bystanders watching me stalk and photograph the sleeping herd. Some rolled their eyes, some muttered under their breaths, and some even tried to intervene.

"Excuse me, is that your friend? Is he allowing you to do that? Do you have permission?"

The assignment took me from the outskirts of the city on the LIRR, to the bowels of the metropolis in the subway, to the port of JFK (we bought a ticket to Boston so I can hang out in the Jet Blue Terminal: unfortunately for me Jet Blue provides free WiFi so hardly anyone was sleeping). But for all the difficulties of the assignment, it was rewarding on an artistic level. There is a relative calm that is shared among these folks. In a city that is always on the go, a person sleeping is like a bullet suspended in mid air. Them being unaware of my presence gave me a chance to photograph a condition that is shared by us all, but rarely appreciated: our sleep.

This was done on assignment for the New York Times Magazine. There are 63 images in the full edit.