A Sleepwalker’s Untold Journey through Suburbia Made Visual

A set of photographs has the power to create an aura of complex mystery. But Sydney-based photographer Jonathan May knows exactly how to cut through ambiguity with compelling, visual narratives. His recent photographic series The Somnambulant makes a powerful eclipse between storytelling and documentation in an urban nightscape setting.


While Jonathan is celebrated in the photographic world for his proficiency in a type of visual storytelling more akin to photojournalism, this project is a little different. Somnambulant tells the story of a Russian military officer called Yuri. Since returning home from a post in Afghanistan, Yuri has been having trouble staying in bed while he’s asleep. In the dead of night, Yuri wanders the streets of his neighbourhood and the surrounding areas of the hotels that he has been staying in.


The story casts an eerie conceptual shadow on the resulting array of nightscapes, repainting them not as friendly neighbourhoods, but as a potentially dangerous terrain at the feet of a clumsy sleepwalker. But be careful how you read the images’ blueish tint. This is not a whimsical portrayal of humorous human antics – for it is suggested that it is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that this poor officer is suffering from.


Fascinated by the project, we asked the Jonathan some questions.

THE PLUS: Traces of low-light photography can be found in your other work. What made you want to dedicate a project purely to night-time photography?
Jonathan May:
When I first started taking photography seriously in 2007 I was working full time, so I started taking night excursions and learning the craft. When I started to see the exaggerated colours through long exposures in limited visibility, that is when I really discovered a love for the camera and what it can capture using light (or lack thereof).


TP: What inspired you to take the perspective of a fictional narrative for this series?
I moved to Moscow in 2012 and spent two years there. It was a great experience but I was away from my close friends and family. Without realising it I felt a little isolated there and started this series as I was roaming around this enormous city at night with my camera and tripod in hand. That is when the idea for The Somnambulant series was born.


TP: How did you come across Yuri? Is he based on someone you met on your travels?
Yuri is loosely based on a man I met in Novgorod in Russia. He was a war veteran, and also suffered from PTSD but the sleepwalking concept was added and his name was changed.

TP: What made you want to make a story about sleepwalking? Do you sleepwalk?
I went to boarding school and there was a classmate in the same dorm as me that had a very bad sleep walking condition. He was 6″7 and I remember coming back from the bathroom in the middle of the night to find him just standing there in the dark, casting a large shadows right in front of my path. I tried to talk to him to see if he was coherent but he ignored me and proceeded to slowly walk towards me. It was quite terrifying to be honest and I ran back and locked myself in the bathroom. That experience stayed with me – especially the visual aspect of darkness, contrasts and shadows being cast by what felt like invisible forces.


TP: Did you see any people out at night when you were making the photographs? Any sleepwalkers?
I usually like to venture around 2am, there is the odd light on. Usually a bed lamp with someone reading just about to fall asleep. I try and stay away from doing this on the weekends too, to avoid crowds and unwanted companions. I am sure I have crossed paths with a sleepwalker but am not talking to them at that time of the morning to find out.

TP: What is it about creating stories with images that you most enjoy?
Storytelling has always been my focus with photography, the narrative part has always intrigued me. That is why my personal work always consists of a series rather than a single image. My aim is to tell a story not just within one frame but a number of them carefully assembled to build a narrative. This of course led to a natural and exciting transition into the world of motion.


TP: How long did it take to complete the project?
The project started in Moscow in 2012, continued in Newfoundland (Canada) and Tasmania (Australia) last year.

TP: What hours did you find to be the quietest in the places you photographed?
Usually from around 3-4am, there is something poetic walking the streets at that time as there is a strange eerie silence that blankets the streets.

TP: Was it difficult to create a series without any people in it?
Not really, as my aim with this series was to tell a story through evoking a particular mood and emotions. I believe light has the power of doing that.


TP: What was your process behind choosing where to take the next photograph?
I am constantly coming up with ideas for series. The creative side of my brain never really switches off. Sometimes it can start if I wake up in the middle of the night and I will struggle getting back to sleep as my mind starts to elaborate on an idea or a concept. Sometimes ideas come to me while in the ocean surfing, as it is great for clearing your head and honing into some creativity. Or driving on a road trip somewhere…