At night, asleep in bed, the human body is completely exposed.
This vulnerability is the subject of Elizabeth Heyert’s The Sleepers, in which she took photographs of people sleeping, projected them in towering scale onto crumbling stone walls, before photographing them again.
What transpires is mythic, moving and, at times uncanny. Displaced from their beds, picked out against the contours of ancient stone, the naked figures take flight. A metamorphosis takes place; sleep is no longer a prosaic process but something sacred and mysterious, revealing truths hidden from our waking selves.
‘The project is all about abstract emotion, what exists under the surface when we are unconscious and unselfconscious,’ says Heyert. ‘It was a revelation to me, while I watched people sleeping for three or more hours at a time, how free and complex their inner lives were, and how very different they seemed both physically and emotionally from the people they seemed to be in the conscious world.’
Key to unlocking this emotion were the walls onto which the images were projected. These Heyert found in Sicily, in abandoned towns ravaged by earthquakes or the impact of World War II.
‘Working in the dark at night in the Sicilian countryside was very intense for me,’ remembers Heyert. ‘There were all sorts of night sounds and movement that you sensed but could not see. I was very aware that I was an intruder. The presence of the dead was always there, in abandoned kitchens with pots still on the stove, or schoolbooks still in destroyed classrooms. It was not peaceful at all, and often frightening, but for me, it added to the emotion of the experience and the way I saw the photos.’
It was not just a question of shooting anywhere. Each picture had to be paired with the right patina of stone, and often a 10-hour night shoot would end without a picture when Heyert looked through the lens and discovered the feeling wasn’t right.
‘It was trial and error,’ she says. ‘However, when it worked, a very natural, symbiotic relationship occurred, as if the pairing was always meant to be. That was thrilling.’