Gabe Sullivan // Photographer

We speak with Gabe Sullivan about his balance between work and family and how he has grown through photography.

As a young photographer, Gabe Sullivan formed a successful relationship with Surfer Magazine, where for over 18 years, he helmed a man-on-the-street format column called Curious Gabe. Building upon his passion as a photographer, he has shot and directed numerous personal and commissioned projects around the world. Gabe remains a prominent figure in photojournalism and is a warmly embraced luminary in Laguna Beach. Constantly seeking to connect with members of the community, Gabe interacts with locals through photography, film, and creative direction. We connect with the curious man about town to learn how he forms relationships in the community and where his latest adventures have taken him.

Tell us about your career in photography and with Surfer Magazine. What are you up to these days?
Lately, I’ve been shooting a lot of lifestyle and editorial photography. I’m currently on hiatus with Surfer Magazine, however, we’re talking about moving my Curious Gabe column onto the web. After about eighteen years of doing it every month with the magazine, it felt like the end of an era when it drew to a close at the end of last year. It’s a little bit bittersweet to see the column leaving print. I’m excited about the possibilities of what we can do online, though. We’ve thought about doing more videos and making the column a more interactive experience. The community aspect is really something I enjoyed. I feel like I offered an opportunity for people to lend their voice to the magazine. The working-class surfer who surfs for the love of it, with a nine to five job - the weekend warrior; I love interviewing those types of surfers, along with artists, local heroes and eccentrics. People from all walks of life still get pretty fired up when they see the old green bus coming their way.

Could you tell us some history behind your VW bus? Where are some of your favorite places you’ve traveled with it?
The bus has been with me for a long time, now. I got it when I was learning how to drive as a teenager. My dad was working at Santa Clara University at the time and one of his colleagues was selling it. My dad knew I really wanted a bus, so we went and checked it out. The thing was in mint condition. Just seeing it, to this day, makes me happy. Now, my son is getting really into it; he loves honking the horn. We love taking it camping at El Moro. It’s got a bed in the back and a child’s cot in the front. It’s really well designed for a small family, and we’re now in a phase of life where it’s pretty perfect for us. My most memorable adventures are getting stuck on the dirt roads of Baja, and having to push it out of the deep, sandy spots.

What inspires you about Southern California?
Scenically, it’s beautiful. It never gets old. I was just driving north on PCH and caught a glimpse of Catalina and the surrounding ocean. I’ve been living here for twenty years, and still really appreciate it. There are so many creative people, doing interesting things, with a great sense of personal style. There’s really no end to the inspiration - it’s everywhere. The opportunities for exploring are endless, and there are so many interesting people to collaborate with creatively here.

What’s daily life like in your neighborhood?
Everyday is a different adventure, but I’m partial to Saturdays. It’s the day we’ve designated as our family fun day. We don’t worry about chores or working. We just pack in as much fun as we can. We always love heading to the farmer’s market. It’s a great place to find fresh, in-season fruits and veggies and a fun place to run into friends. Typically, we end up at the beach sooner or later. The beach is definitely a gathering spot. That social aspect - getting to relax with great people - is awesome.

How do you engage in and contribute to your community with your photography?
I love aligning with people who I share a kindred spirit with. I seek out people who are true to themselves and try to document their lifestyle with my photography in a way we are mutually excited about. Authenticity is so important to me, and Southern California is loaded with so many authentic and stylish people. Case-in-point is my friend Brian Bent from San Juan Capistrano, who is not afraid to go against the grain, saying - “This is who I am. I build my own cars, surfboards, clothing, and furniture.” I love finding those types of people, forming a relationship with them, and creating content that shines a light on them. That’s what gets me really stoked.

Do you have any morning rituals?
I make it a point never to miss breakfast. Lately, we’ve been making hot cereal out of chia seeds, amaranth, millet, quinoa and flax seeds. We grind them up in the coffee grinder, cook the mixture in hot water, then add milk, butter, and maple syrup with some fresh blueberries - it’s pretty tasty.

How do you balance work and family time?
It’s an ongoing search for balance. It’s an area I’ve placed a lot more focus on in the last few years. I didn’t have much balance in the past. I used to put blinders on and put everything I had into my projects, often to the detriment of my health and family relationship. The last few years, I’ve gotten to know some people that have figured out the importance of balance, and I’ve begun to ask more questions. It’s something I’ll always be working on. This is probably the busiest time of my life. A young son and building my career keeps me really busy. It starts with an awareness and desire to succeed in both aspects of my life, as opposed to just one or the other. I make it a goal to drop the pencil and leave the office at five. I try not to be on my phone when I’m at home. I try to be present with my family. There’s always going to be something to stress out about. Managing that stress is a big skill I’ve been able to learn. Figuring out my priorities, and sticking to tasks when I need to.  

Please tell us about some of your most recent work with the brands you’ve been connecting with lately such as M.Nii, Levi’s, Seea, Almond, North Menswear and Men’s File Magazine.
I’ve been really fortunate to connect with so many premium level brands and have made some amazing friends along the way. For me, there is very little delineation between my work and my play, and I think that’s why my work becomes so personal, and why I am constantly drawn to projects that allow me to take ownership and not just only shoot, but also wear my creative director hat as well. My ongoing goal is to create work I’m proud of and to really enjoy the process of making it. I try making the creative process itself be the reward, as opposed to just the finished product. In the past, I felt like I had a lot to prove. I was constantly seeking to prove myself. But now, I'm seeking to instead express myself. It’s been a great journey.

What are a few things you’ve learned along your creative journey?
I love being at the point I’m at in my career. I have twenty years of experience behind me. I’m able to take that experience and use it in my projects, knowing that I’m creating powerful, high quality images and stories. I’m really enjoying this phase of confidence in my craft. I love quality and place a high premium on doing the best work that I can. I love delivering a finished project to a magazine or advertising client I’m working with, and receiving feedback about how much they value me, and my work. Equally and lastly, it’s important that I myself am happy with not only the quality of the work itself, but also the experience I had while making it.

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