Saturday, June 14, 2014

Guest Blog: Photographer uses craft to connect with his father

Many thanks to Jay Sullivan, who contributed this guest blog post, who shows us how he used his art of photography to process the memories of his father and process his relationship with him after his death.  Thank you for showing how powerful art can be.
The Father I Always Had

I hated my father most of my life.

When I was five years old, my father had a bipolar breakdown and was sent to a psychiatric institution.  The traumatic events that followed forever defined my relationship with my father: violent outbursts, endless days of him sleeping away the afternoon on the couch, picking him up and putting him to bed after many too many beers, late night calls when he needed a place to stay, and bailing him out of jail. I spent most of my life angry, embarrassed, and ashamed at whom and what he became. When he died in 1992, I put his ashes in my closet and put him behind me for good – or so I had thought.

In early 2011, I started a photographic essay titled Glove hoping to reconnect with my father by exploring what it would be like to have had a normal, adult relationship with him.  I began by imagining he lived with me. I photographed articles in my house that I remembered him owning: a wallet on my nightstand, a razor on the bathroom sink, a baseball glove in the closet. I photographed them large and direct, seeking to dissolve the memories I had in my head of a weak, failed man and replace them with images that were strong and masculine.

One step led to another, and the process became more and more integral to the images that were being created. I dug into his professional past, finding a man that was different than the one I knew – one that I could be proud of: pledge captain in his fraternity, top salesman at both IBM and 3M, President of the NJ Jaycees, MBA at Seton Hall (which was earned several years AFTER his breakdown). I photographed a college ring, a "How to Win Friends and Influence People" book, a briefcase; the images created an admirable story where there once was a void.

If you want to really understand someone, research the brands they buy.  The headline for my father’s brand of cigarettes?: More Scientists and Educators Smoke Kent; for his hair crème?: Brylcreem…For Smart, Healthy Hair; for his watch?: Why Most Teachers Prefer Bulova. These reminders of my father’s lifelong pursuit of learning helped subjugate his less noble attributes.

I started a journal that recorded the days of an imagined adult life together: days at the beach, at the coffee shop, at the ball field; the process sparked real life memories and subsequent photographic images: cooking Christmas pancakes, fishing on a tiny pond, trips to Yankee stadium. The more images I created, the more I remembered – and the more I wanted to be his son again.

Photographing this series resulted in a rich, visceral connection between me, the objects, and long-buried memories.  Many of the memories were anxiety-filled, connected to my father, the tragedies of his life, and the beliefs of a 5-year-old child who thought it was all his fault.   Creating Glove helped me discover that fear confronted leads to fear released.  Three years into this process and 20 years after my father’s death, I have found the father I always wanted – and in many ways always had.

About Jay Sullivan

Jay Sullivan grew up playing baseball in New Jersey.  His life changed direction when he received a film developer kit for Christmas.  It started an interest in image-making that, along with a decent curveball, gained him entrance into Rochester Institute of Technology where he studied photography.

Jay went onto a 25 year career as a Creative Director, creating media for print, online. installations and live events.  He's traveled to over 20 countries on four continents staging events and creating video works that featured President Jimmy Carter, Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Ossie Davis, the Ye minority in the remote mountains of southern China, Bambara farmers in Mali, and teenagers in the ghettos of Sao Paulo, Brazil.  His productions have been garnered a Cine Golden Eagle, NY Festivals Silver World Medal, Silver Screen Award and many other honors.   Jay lives and creates art in Red Bank, New Jersey with his wife, two dogs, a cat and two horses.


  1. Jay - What a moving post. I only wish you had included more of your amazing images. They tell such a potent story along with your words. So many of us hold so many negative stories about our parents. It was inspiring to see how "pretending" or "rewriting" the story of you and your father led to you remembering real events that helped you to rewrite the true narrative about your relationship. Thank you so much for sharing something so deep and meaningful.

  2. thank you Amy. You can see more of the images at