We’ve long wanted to film famed surf photographer Chris Burkard in action, so when we heard that he was headed to the Arctic with professional surfers to tackle the brutally harsh seas, we packed our bags and followed. In our latest installment of SmugMug Films, we travel with Burkard on his journey with professional surfers Patrick Millen, Brett Barley, and Chadd Konig as they brave sub-zero temperatures to capture moments of raw beauty, adventure, and community. Keep reading after the video to get an exclusive interview with Chris about how he got his start, what he looks for in a fantastic image, and that time he got deported from Russia.
How did you get started with photography?
I did a lot of art in high school. And I transitioned to wanting to explore doing art out in the field, but I soon realized it wasn’t very fun. It wasn’t a very intimate experience to me. You’re just a bystander. When I picked up a camera and started taking photos of my friends surfing and landscapes, I realized I was in the moment. I was out there, and shooting these photos was an extension of the body. It was intimate. You’re a part of it, and you can take it anywhere: social settings, mountaintops, oceans. It was a perfect extension and a great medium of expression for me. To this day I’m seeking out new places so I can bring a camera and experience them.
If you hadn’t become a photographer what would you have been?
Probably a fireman. I don’t know! I worked for many years in random jobs. Before I was working to be a photographer, I worked on cars a lot. I loved old vehicles and the idea of making them how I wanted. It came down to the idea of wanting to do something where people will appreciate my craft and my talents, and I realized that was what made me want to turn machines into artwork. If I wasn’t a photographer, maybe I’d be working on cars somewhere.
How would you describe what you do today?
I’m always seeking out the adventures in life, whether I’m shooting surfing in a cold, harsh environment or shooting a commercial assignment. And that’s meant to speak to the idea of going to a new place, summiting a new peak, or surfing a new wave. It doesn’t matter to me how big or how small. My goal has always been to create images that inspire people to get off their couch and go explore something new.
The idea of exploration is the thing that really makes me want to push harder. It’s the driving force behind a lot of my work.
What do you look for when creating an image?
There’s a lot of technical things I’ll look for. I’m looking for light, contrast, and all those elements that make a good image. But I consider other elements when I’m thinking of how to capture something. Like if there’s historical value to a photo—where I’m shooting a place that might not be around for very long—that’s very important to me.
Coming from an art background, I’m used to trying to put everything I want into this easel shape. I’m just bringing in all the elements. When you’re shooting and photographing in this frame, you have to get everything inside it. You’re really constricted in being able to make it happen.
For me, it’s also super important to push your cameras as far as they can go to capture what you’re seeing. A photograph is usually a two-dimensional item. If there’s anything you can do to make it feel three dimensional, that’s the goal.
I also like the idea of creating images that will carry weight with people. Photos that aren’t driven by advertisements or logos. And it’s super important, too, when creating a body of work that you want to be around longer than yourself.
Given the adventurous nature of your work and the harsh conditions you’re in, are there any great pictures you didn’t get to take?
There’s always a lot of pictures I don’t get, or I feel I haven’t had a chance to capture yet. As a photographer, or anyone who’s a perfectionist, that’s all you think about: all the moments you didn’t get. And that’s just life. You’re striving for something better, and you always wish there’s something you could’ve captured, but if you get them all, you’ll have nothing left to strive for.
What do you consider the biggest challenge about your work?
It all depends on where I’m going. The nature element is the hardest thing, like if I’m going somewhere really cold or somewhere that has a harsh environment. Being in the water in high 30s or low 40s can be brutal on your body, mind, and psyche, and it’s always challenging. You’re always weighing out risk versus reward. Luckily, 90 percent of the time you’re not far from a warm car, but there are those moments when you know in order to get the shot you have to go out and suffer a bit. Those are the times I feel most alive. I have to put in more effort and lose a little bit of skin.
Your explorations often take you to off-the-beaten-path locations. What do you look for?
I’m drawn to places that feel and look more wild. I think it’s human nature to want to see these places, but the reality is most people don’t want to put in the time to find them. So a big part of what I do is try to find spots that will speak to that aesthetic. The location is almost as important as who I’m with and what I’m shooting. Each place plays a huge character role in these stories. Whether I’m on a remote beach in Norway or somewhere in Russia, I want to be in a place that people naturally associate with adventure.
How do you find these places?
There’s a certain recipe. There are a lot of amazing places I could go, but I have to have an assignment that takes me there. I have a list of places I would love to see and love to experience, but I don’t have opportunities to shoot there. But I have a list. And it’s something I tick off as I get to go to places.
With so many places yet to see, is there a favorite place you’ve already been?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been to Iceland 13 times. That place is pretty dang special.
What do you love about it?
The way the landscape is always changing really draws me in. It’s inspiring to me and makes me want to go back because the conditions and climate are constantly evolving. For a photographer, it’s what you’re always searching for. You could shoot only one day there and have so many different conditions.
I don’t like to go to places that wouldn’t be inspiring to me on a personal level. Because if you’re not excited about the work you’re doing, then it’s hard to want to photograph it.
Is there a photography project that’s been the most meaningful for you to date?
The trips I do, I invest a lot of my energy, heart, and soul. That’s why when they turn out successful, it means so much. Success can be measured many different ways, but for me it’s pretty simple: If I feel like I got the images I needed, or got the job done while still being able to experience the culture for myself, then the trip was a success.
I plan for three years or more to do these trips, and when I’m able to set foot on the landscape and experience it, I don’t want to leave anything behind. For me, that’s been Russia, Alaska, Iceland, and Norway. These are places I put a big part of myself into.
What’s been your most challenging to date?
I’d say Russia just because of the logistical challenge of getting there. It took three years to plan and find the place to go.
I went to Russia for the first time in 2009, and you have to fill out a visa request like three months ahead of time. I was in a crew with four people, and we had to go through customs. I get stopped. They look at my passport. They look at me. They look at my passport again. They look at me. And I realize the entry date on my visa was for the next day. It was the wrong date.
After a long discussion, they put me in a holding cell for 24 hours, and then deported me to South Korea. After recouping a day later, I flew back. It was scary. Really scary. I didn’t get food and water until I talked to the embassy. It was crazy.
It was one of the first places I traveled to that was really wild and remote. And it was such an eye-opening one because I realized for the first time what it felt like to have all your rights stripped from you. It makes you really appreciate being on American soil.
What’s at the top of list for a place you’d like to return to?
I really want to go back to Chile and explore Tierra del Fuego. It’s at the very end of South America, and it looks amazing.
In a lot of your behind-the-scenes shots, it looks like surfers are headed right at you. Have you ever suffered any collisions?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been run over. I’ve had surfers hit me with their board. Cut my nose and other things. Those are the experiences that make it exciting. You’re very much at risk. And it makes it that much cooler, really, being able to be a part of the action. Being hidden in the midst of it myself.
Ever lost any gear?
I’ve lost quite a bit of gear. One time I was on a little boat, and we got hit by a wave. Basically my entire kit went overboard, and I lost about $30,000 worth of gear. Luckily, I had insurance for it.
Speaking of gear, what are your must-haves?
I have a lot of must-haves. It comes down to the fact that I think, man, if I don’t need to use this it’s not going to be much of an adventure!
A multitool is super important when it comes to being somewhere remote and interesting. Obviously having a good, reliable camera is crucial, and that’s personal preference. I like to travel really light and really small, so I use a lot of mirrorless cameras, like the Sonys. There’s usually a solar charger of some kind, whether for cell phone or camera. An ultralight, ultrasmall water-purification device that uses UV light. Energy bars. A light rain jacket is always crucial. A lightweight tripod is always in there. Filters. Almost always a pair of gloves.
If you don’t need a headlamp, it’s not even a place you want to go. I can’t count how many times I’ve gone out driving around, having a great time, then coming back for a couple hours to sleep until dark. That’s when, as a photographer, you know the best light is going to be, or when the stars are going to come out. Nine times out of 10 we’re hiking back in the dark with a headlamp on.
It sounds like you have a survival kit with some camera gear versus a camera kit with some survival gear.
That’s really what it comes down to. I want to make sure that when I’m shooting photos that I’m able to relax, knowing that safety is taken care of. I occasionally have a small rope and carabiner just in case I need to lower down from somewhere. Usually the most unusual thing I have in there is a packet of gummy candy, because that’s one of my favorite things. It’s either a reward after the shoot because things have gone well, or I just got beat down by rain or no sun and I want to have something sweet.
Given the chaos you’re in for your shooting conditions, do you shoot manually?
Yeah, always. I love shooting manually. You really start to work with your camera, and it becomes second nature. I like to have complete control. I don’t want to have my camera trying to make decisions for me.
Do you have any rules when it comes to your overall process?
When I’m going somewhere new, I’m really careful not to research too many of the places I’m going to see because I don’t want to get some interpreted view of what these places should look like on a postcard. I want to be able leave my view and perspective unskewed so I can maintain ultimate creative freedom. That being said, I also want to make sure that I’m being educated on where I’m going, because the more unique the less you know. That’s a really important mantra to have at all times.
If someone decided to pursue a similar path, what advice would you give them?
I personally would tell them that I don’t think school is going to teach you the type of skills you need to do what I do. A big part of this is experiencing things. Learn from a magazine setting or an editorial conference. Study a photographer you like and really understand the hustle it takes to do what they do. Understand what it’s like to be in those commercial and editorial situations where you’re trying to make it all work for a client.
I look back at the time I spent driving down to Oceanside every week to intern at Transworld Surf, and a summer I interned with a landscape photographer. That’s where I feel like I gained the biggest understanding of what photography was really like. I realized what it means to run your own business. And if you still want to do it after that, you should.
Any advice for capturing a great image?
There’s great moments happening everywhere, but for me there’s two main types. There’s the one that happens all of a sudden, which requires being there and being ready, and knowing your equipment inside and out. And the second is the one you’ve preconceived. Sometimes those are really special to me because you have this idea and you get to see it through.
Look for unique lighting situations. Go out in storms and go out at a time when no one else is. That’s when you’re going to capture something unique.
And what about the best advice you’ve ever received?
My grandpa told me to kick ass and take names. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not.
I guess a personal mantra I try to follow is the more you know, the less you need. I’ve always been a big proponent of traveling with less and not being the person who has the biggest, most expensive camera. It’s not that I can’t afford it, I just like to experience moments personally as well as through my camera. If you walk away from any trip and it’s a complete blur because you were shooting the whole time, then you weren’t really experiencing it.
In the end, you should have all these cool stories to share with loved ones and family and friends. At least that’s how it is for me. I always try to be present in the moment and really experiencing it myself, too.
What do you find exciting about the photography industry today?
Now everyone is a photographer. People have cameras and video cameras in their phones. At any time I could have four or five cameras on me. It’s crazy.
What we’re seeing is the emergence of these smaller, lighter cameras being able to capture more real, intimate moments. And I think the idea of mobile photography and how it’s changed photography as a whole is really exciting.
I think we’re really seeing, too, a changing of the guard where a lot of established photographers have lost touch with the people who are interested in their work because they haven’t adapted to these new forms of social media or ways of promoting their work.
Photography as a whole is really moving toward those who are open to sharing. Nothing’s a secret anymore. If you try to keep secrets, people just aren’t going to embrace it. They want to find people who are sources of knowledge and are able to share that knowledge. That’s how I look at inspiration.
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Subscribe to the SmugMug Films channel to watch and see future installments as soon as we set them free. If you enjoyed the film with Chris Burkard, you may like these artist profiles on underwater photographer Sarah Lee, YouTube superstar DevinSuperTramp, and lava chases Lava Light.