Chris Burkard started to feel trapped by the tropical beaches he was photographing professional surfers at for a living. This was supposed to be the dream job: the one he took a significant risk for by leaving 9-5 positions when he was 19 so he could become a surf photographer. He shot swells everywhere from Indonesia to Australia, documenting it all for surf magazines and brands like Billabong.
However there was something in these sort of “pre-packaged adventures,” saturated with Wi-Fi and predictability, that made him feel uneasy.
“You know, the waves were great, but that wasn’t enough,” Burkard says over the phone. “I got into this career path because I wanted to have adventures and be inspired, but I realized pretty quickly it wasn’t just enough to have white sand beaches and perfect waves. I needed to have something that made me feel inspired.”
A couple years and 1.3 million Instagram followers later, Burkard is taking very important calls from Toyota, The North Face and even Justin Bieber. He’s a global image ambassador for Sony and Toyota is a regular client of his. The lifestyle brands, the celebrities and the recognition all came from his decision to photograph surfers in the coldest, most unforgiving locations in the oceanic regions of the North Atlantic.
So my first question is, do you ever stop working?
[Laughs] You know I wish. It’s just a curse. I love what I do and I get to inspire a lot of people so I feel driven by that. I definitely get burnt out pretty easily sometimes, but I think it’s also from the conditions of these places that I go to because they are so harsh.
I can only image. You spoke in your TED Talk about how you wanted to get away from “the mundane.” Can you tell me about the first time you realized having a normal job wasn’t going to be in the cards for you?
When I was 19, I was working dead-end jobs doing anything I could. I would work at auto body shops, floral shops and these sorts of jobs that would only last a couple weeks or a couple months. I just was continually not motivated. I wanted to be hired and paid for being creative. My dream was being that type of person, someone who is celebrated for their creativity and I just didn’t feel celebrated for my creativity doing those jobs. Ultimately, I had my last job at a magazine store and I thought in some way, it would get me closer to being in those places, being in those locations, but it really just drove me crazy. I realized that pretty quickly. So I said, “I’m going to give this 10 years,” and I told myself I’d either be face down in the dirt somewhere or thriving as a photographer and I just knew I had to give it everything.
So where did photography come in then?
It’s funny, I really don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. I did art in high school and it was fun. I loved it, but I realized I was kind of bummed that it wouldn’t put me in the moment. It wouldn’t put me in the oceans or in the mountains. It was a classroom. That was sort of the birth of photography for me. When I picked it up, I was like, “Whoa this is such a rad medium for expression. This is what I need and what I’ve been looking for.” So I felt pretty motivated to try and use it in any way I could to further my goal to travel. That was really the reason I picked it up because I always wanted to travel, but sadly hadn’t really until I started working in that field.
I know even after you landed your “dream job” of surfing and taking photos, you still felt like you were searching for something different. Why did you opt for traveling to arctic, freezing places in lieu of tropical locations?
It was kind of tricky because originally what happened was I was traveling to these places that I loved, and I was living that lifestyle. I was going to these locations like Bali, Indonesia and Australia, but a poison is being pumped into those places and into those experiences. I was going to those places that were kind of “pre-packaged” adventures. They were these “book your surf trip now” sort of thing or “go here the waves are great.” The waves were great, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t what I was looking for. So I started kind of going off the grid and getting a little more dangerous and a little more risky, and in that process I started to feel more fulfilled and really vindicated. I was there on the beach without anyone else around, and it was just this wild and remote area that felt so unique. Every photograph felt really fulfilling because you had to give a part of yourself to it. It’s funny now, it makes so much more sense because why would I want to do what everyone else was doing? Back then it was like I really had to convince myself for some reason.
I think it’s hard to take a risk like that when you’re in the moment. Was Iceland the first place that you went to try out arctic surfing?
Yeah, but actually the first place that was kind of cold water was an island above Vancouver Island called Haida Gwaii, and it was this remote little island that had mostly Native Americans and this amazing landscape that was really raw and rugged. It was a cold surf trip, and I was just like, “these amazing cold weather places are awesome no one is here.” It was pristine, there were no bugs and it was just wild. Then shortly after that, I went to Iceland and that is when I really experienced the desolation of that landscape and how beautiful it really is. I kind of fell in love with the harshness of it. Every sunset and sunrise you got, you didn’t take for granted because you knew that it was rare.
I know your vast knowledge of Iceland landed you a project with Justin Bieber for his newest music video, which now has 87 million views. How did you get involved with him?
You know it’s pretty crazy actually. In all honesty, when the whole project came about there was never any intention of shooting a music video. They just reached out to me, Justin did, because he always wanted to go to Iceland, had seen my photos online and he said he followed my work and was super inspired to go. He had this short break between recording his album and traveling somewhere else and he said he wanted to go. I basically said hey I would love to join, and that was that. I almost didn’t bring my camera. We went there, cruised around for like two and a half days and I showed him my favorite places that I’ve ever been to. It was really an amazing experience. You wouldn’t normally think of me and Justin Bieber hanging together, but I tried to go with no expectations and the guy was like one of the most eager people to experience the things around him. He was really down to earth. It was surprising and I really loved that. I shot photographs and totally randomly, those photos ended up being what he used for the back cover and internal images in his album. Life is a crazy.
What was it like the very first time you got into the below-freezing waters to photograph and surf?
You know you have so much rubber on sometimes you’re kind of desensitized. But I think it’s funny: it’s not as bad as you think. If you get prepared you’re fine, but what happens is, getting in isn’t a big deal. It’s the whole process of getting there, being in the water, trying to shoot and then you start to get really cold. It happens in your hands, then spreads to your toes and then it slowly spreads to your core. What happens is all of your extremities go first, and they start to lock up and freeze. It kind of kills you.
If your extremities are beginning to shut down, how do you surf like that?
Well I mean the thing is when you’re surfing, it’s actually a lot easier than when you’re shooting photographs. When you’re shooting, you have to wear gloves that fit tighter and are smaller in order to operate the camera. You’re more submerged in the water. So to be honest, I think that surfing in those conditions is really not that bad. You can usually survive a lot longer because you’re on a board, too. I really think it was swimming around out there, those are the experiences where it felt the most harsh. That whole experience is something I feel like I found a lot of purpose and meaning in. It’s been something that has given me a lot of joy as funny as it sounds, simply because I knew you can get better surf in a lot of other places and you can be more comfortable, but that isn’t what this is about. Always being comfortable isn’t how we grow, I think in that realm the discomfort was always a teaching opportunity of knowing how much I was willing to give for an amazing experience. The experiences were always amazing, they always have been.
So you surf in hypothermic waters, go to these remote locations that require crazy transportation and you’ve even been in the water during a full-on blizzard. Are there any other moments where you’ve thought, “oh shit what did I just get myself into?”
Oh yeah. In 2009 I went to Russia for the first time, and I was in the country for about 20 minutes when I got pulled into interrogation at customs. Basically, long story short, they put me into a jail cell for 24 hours, and then I was deported to Korea. That all happened because I had a passport issue, so it was kind of a crazy experience.
And being deported to Korea? Not exactly a place you want to go.
No, not like a fun area at all. It was an eye opening experience though. I realized I wasn’t like this invincible 21-year-old kid that I thought I was. That was right around the time when I started getting really excited traveling to these types of places, and at first I wanted to blame this issue on everybody else. Yes, it wasn’t really my fault because the lady who did my visa messed up, but I realized I had gotten way too excited about where I was going that I didn’t take the time to plan it out effectively and check my visa when I got it. I kind of compromised the process, and by doing that I put myself into a lot of deep crap. I guess part of growing up is realizing you can’t rush into these things. Because as amazing and beautiful as these places are, you have to be willing to spend the extra time, double check things and be safe.
Where’s one place that you have had your eye on that you haven’t been yet?
I’ve been wanting to go to the Falkland Islands, this island near the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. It’s basically just this kind of remote, war-torn island that even has these land mines everywhere. It’s near the arctic, and it’s a really unique place. Penguins walk along the beaches, and I’ve just been drawn to that location a lot.
Speaking of crazy things like land mines: what’s the hardest place to travel to?
I went to this place in Alaska a couple years ago. It wasn’t so much that it was hard to get to. It was the stuff that we wanted to do, like the waves that we wanted to access. It took a lot of planning and a lot of organization of stuff. Getting a plane to fly there wasn’t a big deal, but once we were there how do we get food? How do we get to the surf breaks? We ended up finding a cabin that we could rent from these hunters. We were on an island with six people and that was it, and we were using quads to ride 30 miles a day to the beach and it was just really a unique and remote place. I would say there, and then Kamchatka, Russia were two of the coolest places I’ve been that had a really unique story about how we got there.
Your Instagram account has obviously helped you get a lot of opportunities. So when you first started it, did you ever think it would turn into this?
Honestly, my wife is the one who told me to get involved in Instagram. I was always one of those people that hated Facebook, and then I finally got on there. I think the problem was I never wanted to cheapen the work I was doing. And I thought by putting your stuff online it would cheapen it, but I realized pretty quickly it was finally cool to tell my own story of the places I’ve been going to. That was what made it so unique: the fact that you could tell your own experience. In a way, I was able to be my own editor, my own curator and my own sort of magazine. I guess that is when I got really excited about it.
When you get back from these trips, what does a day in your office look like?
Well, today I probably signed 250 books to get sent out for Christmas and the holidays. I took like five conference calls with REI, ad agencies, you and a couple of other people. I wrote a ton of emails, signed a loan for a new office. It’s crazy every day. But that’s what I get for being off the grid for 10 days. I have to expect that this is part of sustaining this type of life, and I am super grateful for it. It’s always something different. Most people think 90 percent of the time I am just out there taking pictures living some dream life, but that’s not it whatsoever. There’s so much work that goes on behind the scenes.
If you could give your 19-year-old self advice, what would it be?
Every time I was willing to take a risk, that is when my career blossomed. I mean I have photos from thousands of places I’ve been that don’t really mean much to me because they don’t have a story attached to it. When I learned to truly travel, that’s when things changed for me. And I’m not going to lie to you, I really had to learn how to do that. I had to learn how to get through a trip and not just live through the images, but actually take the time to experience those places for myself when I am there. Sometimes that means taking fewer photos, sometimes that means doing less and sometimes that means just being more open to the experience.