Searching for the exceptional
BY JASMIN HUMMEL
The bitter cold, uninhabited areas, spectacular snapshots – when searching for a unique subject, Chris Burkard not only overcomes his own borders, but also those of traditional surf photography. He shares his experiences with millions of people worldwide, taking his audience with him on a journey into unknown worlds. His images and visions are inspiring, encouraging viewers to tap into unexplored potential through borderline experiences. Each one of his trips is a challenge with the aim of overcoming what is familiar.
Chris, at 19 you gave up your job as a car mechanic in order to become a surf photographer. How did your story develop from then on?
I started taking photos when I was 19 years old after experimenting with drawing and art in high school. I realised that it enabled me to do art in a mobile state, to explore and adventure, and show people the beauty in the world around me. At that point, I realised that I enjoyed photography, but the idea of turning it into a career was overwhelming. I knew I had to give it 100 percent if I wanted to make it into something, so without any formal training I quit my job and started shooting anything for anyone. I would go and shoot surfers at the local beach and try to sell them pictures on DVDs. I shot weddings and senior pictures and interior store photos. That obviously wasn’t my end goal, but I had to start somewhere. I wanted to learn more about action sports and landscape photography, which is what I was excited about but didn’t know where to turn, so I started applying for internships. I finally got an opportunity to intern with Michael Fatali, a large format landscape photographer, and I got an internship at Transworld Surf magazine, which was an incredibly valuable experience. Through trial and error, I taught myself and began to develop a style. Hard work, persistence, and having passion for what I do has taken me a long way. For the first part of my career I slept in my car a lot, so nothing happens quickly. I would say it was about four years until I really started making an income. During my Transworld internship, I commuted over five hours every week and lived in my car. I really look back fondly at those more challenging times, because it makes you appreciate having to work for what you have and giving something of yourself for your career.
You travel to remote, uninhabited and icy locations in order to capture breathtaking images. Where does your taste for the cold come from?
I was just never interested in being surrounded by people. That’s not what made me want to pick up a camera. I grew up on the central coast of California, Big Sur, and remote beaches, where solitude is your best friend. You learn to be comfortable roaming alone on the beach, and it was those experience that brought me close to nature, instead of being surrounded by tons of people on a beach, all seeking the same thing. Since I started my career, all I have wanted is to go to more and more remote places. What started as just a fun experience has turned into a full-blown obsession. I have found that for me, and maybe this applies to everyone, if we are living too far inside our comfort zone, then we aren’t really living. Living right on the edge is where we learn the most about ourselves.
With your photographs, you have crossed the traditional borders of surf photography. Where do you get your inspiration from?
We are all byproducts of our environment. For me, growing up in open spaces always led me to appreciate the great wide open. I started shooting surfing because I have a core understanding of the sport, but my goal was to always do something a bit different with it. I wanted to combine these large environments with my subject.
What is your procedure when looking for a subject and planning adventures. How much spontaneity is in your creative process?
It is the hardcore investigative work when trying to find new places. Nowadays, we have so many resources at our fingertips that make travelling and planning that much easier. On many occasions, I use Google Earth and weather charts for remote locations.
In your film “Under an Arctic Sky”, you take your audience with you through the remoteness of Iceland. How did this project start and what does it mean to you?
The project started as a simple magazine assignment that I had pitched to the editors, and it became something much more than that as the story evolved. In the end, it became much more than just a trip to surf a remote wave, it became an introspection to my love for wild places and embracing uncertainty. I find that when you have an element of ‘unknown’, that is the space where we grow the most.
What do you plan on doing next?
My goal is to keep on inspiring people. And of course, that means finding new places and people with a unique story to tell.
Chris Burkard is a photographer, filmmaker, adventurer, researcher, creative director, author and speaker. His visionary power has enabled him to collaborate on prominent campaigns with Fortune-500 customers, to give a TED talk, to develop a range of products and to establish himself as one of the most successful photographers and filmmakers. His photographs and films have already won numerous awards.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q4 2017. Picture credit © Chris Burkard/Massif