The Sleephead exhibit by Tracy Barbour on display till August 31st at the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum in Jacksonville, Florida.


Given during the exhibit opening artist talk and tour on July 6th, 2018.

If you are interested in purchasing one of the exhibit images, please contact the artist using the CONTACT PAGE.

These images reflect my fascination that became an obsession with the public sleepers of New York City. They are result of countless hours walking the streets of New York City, observing my great city’s transformation. When I began my professional career in photography over 13 years ago, my mentor said shoot what you know, tell the stories you are familiar with. This is what I know.

2 years ago I spent 2 consecutive years immersed in restless nights in front of the tv, binge watching Netflix until 3, 4, 5 am until my eyes were finally heavy and I could close the chapter on yet another night of insomnia. I tried everything. From chamomile tea to melatonin to mass doses of Benadryl, I learned very quickly how to live on 1 to 2 hours of sleep, but I was a walking zombie.

Then I moved to NYC in October of 2016.

New York City, land of bright lights and land of all night entertainment. Where else can you get a delicious piled-high deli sandwich at 3 am? It is an insomniac's dream. For most sleep-deprived, life is usually a hellish nightmare of staring at the ceiling, listening to the silence of a city sleeping; all those snoring faces getting their allotted 8 hours of blissful rejuvenation.

But not in NYC.

NYC is awake at all hours. At any given moment you can HEAR those bright lights, you can HEAR those dreams coming true, you can HEAR the tourists mingling with the natives. It is ALWAYS loud, It is ALWAYS moving, it is NEVER asleep.

Or so I thought.

When I moved to NYC, I lived in Bushwick. Bushwick is in Brooklyn, one of the most well-known buroughs. Bushwick is not the teaming-with- hipsters Brooklyn (that’s Williamsburg) but the fighting-gentrification-largely-working-class Brooklyn. I lived with 5 roommates just a few blocks off the M and the J train, which is a major intersection of people hopping on to commute to the city, also known as Manhattan. The Myrtle stop intersected with Broadway, one of the longest streets to run the full length of NYC. Along Broadway you will find a complete cross-section of every type of person that resides within NYC and it’s outer buroughs.

In other words, it was loud and busy AT ALL HOURS.

I had already endured 2 years of insomnia so I figured if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  That train of thought led me to doing laundry at 2 am, going out or staying up till 4 am, grabbing a bit of shut eye for 2 hours and waking at 6 am to be in the office by 7:30 am for my day job in the city. I did this daily for months. Sleep was for the weak. Who needs sleep?! I could survive on shear will and adrenaline. So very little sleep leads to a constant state of sleep deprivation.

There is something interesting that happens to the human body and mind once sleep deprivation sets in. We begin to lose our ability to make sound decisions, our judgement becomes skewed, especially about sleep. When you are sleep deprived, you will think your body is adapting to less and less sleep. You will think you are fine. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When you survive day to day on less and less sleep, sleep deprivation will cause you to lose touch with just how impaired you really are. In addition, your physical body begins to age at a rapid pace. You can go from the sound mind and body of a 40 year old to that of a semi-senile geriatric 80 year old in a few short months.

Leaving at the time I did on my commute to my job on 5th Avenue, I was never able to sit down on the train. Therefore, I was always standing, always moving to let on new passengers. I had learned months prior going back and forth between my then home of Houston, Texas and New York City on documentary assignments to always wear headphones. My playlist was rock or rap, hard hitting and fast-paced. Loud music and lots of caffeine were the perfect antidote to sleepless nights.

Until the day I finally was able to take a coveted seat. My playlist that day was not rock or rap, I had accidentally left my phone on the rain sounds I used to try to fall asleep at night. To sleep I went. I passed out somewhere over Brooklyn and left undisturbed by the other passengers I slept hard. I don’t remember dreaming, I don’t remember anything except when we pulled into an unfamiliar station a couple stops past my 42nd and Bryant Park stop. It was only two stops, how bad could it be? I would just take the train on the opposite track. Except I had only 10 minutes to get to work and the train on the opposite track stood with its doors open revealing the disgruntled passengers inside; delays for days.

I ran on foot several city blocks, sweating and breathing heavy with a loaded backpack and an extra canvas tote.

How could this have happened? I was awake all the time, but the one time I needed to be awake I passed out? After years of insomnia, I just passed out? Why had no one disturbed me? The train was packed full of people. It was loud, it was hot; the stench of body odor and urine hanging like a wet blanket in the air.

By now you are probably wondering if I made it to work on time. I did. But this wasn’t the last time I fell asleep on the train. As a matter of fact it wasn’t the last time I fell asleep in public. As the months passed, I discovered I wasn’t the only one.

One of the signs you are a true New Yorker is the ability to fall asleep just about anywhere.

In a crowded train pressed together like sardines? Put on those headphones and pass out standing up. Sitting on the steps of Bryant Park after a long day of work? Lean up against the wall and catch some shut eye. Live above a busy street? You will learn how to fall asleep to honking horns, loud music, and screaming bystanders. You will learn very quickly how to fall asleep on the bus and time it to wake up just before your stop.

From all night partiers, to moms finishing up a long day of shopping for the family, to 3rd shift workers catching a late night snack and a 20 minute cat nap before they begin their second job – we are all sleep deprived and never sleeping AND sleeping in unexpected places.

So the next time you experience a stranger falling asleep on your shoulder, just let them sleep.

They probably need it.