Finding fulfillment in wild places

Outdoor, adventure and surf photographer Chris Burkard hails from sunny California but loves spending his working life in remote, cold environments or riding perfect waves in freezing waters, even the Arctic Circle. He explains to Good editor Carolyn Enting why it makes him feel alive.

Interview Carolyn Enting. Photography Chris Burkard.

You are mostly behind the lens, but how much do you surf?

I have spent a large portion of my life in the ocean, which started with bodyboarding and bodysurfing. As I began to shoot more in the ocean I got way more into bodysurfing which, in many ways, is the purest form of wave riding. It’s an incredible feeling being able to completely harness the energy of the wave by correctly positioning your body to displace water efficiently. I have surfed from time to time but I get the most enjoyment from simply being in the ocean.

You’ve traded touristy beaches for the wilderness. How have you made it pay, as a career move?

I began travelling to these places mainly to challenge the status quo of surfing and quickly found the importance of showing people these environments as a whole – not just the waves. I came to realise that the beauty of the waves comes from their wild nature and their unpredictability. That’s the idea that people really connected to. I’ve never really looked at it as a ‘career move’ but more of a natural progression in my photography as my perspective evolved. What began with finding the perfect wave transitioned into a quest to truly discover something new, whether it be a wave, a mountain peak or a glacial river. I’m so grateful to be able to share all of those experiences and images with people, and blessed to have been able to support myself and my family while pursuing what I’m passionate about. 

Gazing into a glacier, Iceland, 2014.

Can you explain how you find meaning in the wilderness?

My intentions are very simple. I hope to inspire [others] to step into uncertainty, challenge themselves to go outside their comfort zone and be motivated to explore the roads less travelled. My advice is to be bold and to approach each situation as a way to grow. Focus on what inspires you more than just trying to shoot assignments that would make editors happy. Once I started working on projects that ultimately led me to cold places involving massive risks, it brought about a greater sense of joy and fulfillment in my life, and subsequently, my career. 

Why are the places you choose to go mostly wild, remote and cold?

I’m a cold water fanatic at heart. Touristy beaches are always great but when you tell people you’re going surfing in Norway, Russia or Iceland people look at you like you’re crazy. That’s the reaction I want to get from people. I feel like we’ve all been sold the endless summer dream and, for me, most of the warm places I’ve been to are littered with tourists and massive hotels – the mystery is lost. 

Body boarders enjoying a perfect Tahitian barrel. Tahiti, 2011.

Where have you found the most perfect waves?

For me perfection is more about the overall experience, the location, and how it leaves you feeling once it’s all said and done. I think the best barrels I’ve found were in northern Iceland. Norway takes a close second. Overall I’d have to say Alaska takes the cake by far.

How do you stop your camera battery from freezing?

You have to get creative when it comes to batteries! The easiest is to keep your batteries on your body at all times which will at least keep them somewhat warm. On my last trip to Iceland we were taping hand warmers to a set of them during our shoots. 

When you go to these remote places do you find other surfers? 

Surfing in these places requires a great amount of commitment. There is a small group of surfers in Iceland that I’ve known for about six years and I have travelled with tons. I always bring surfers with me but at the same time I’m always stoked to run into the locals. Normally, my crew consists of myself, an assistant, and two to three surfers. 

Aerial perspective of the interconnected glacier lakes and streams, Iceland 2015.

You’ve said that choosing this path over the top tourist surf spots is so much more meaningful to you than filling pages of magazines. What do you mean by that?

It’s much more fulfilling to go out and shoot something that you are proud of than shooting an image in the hope that someone else will like it. I realised a long time ago that filling the pages of my passport or collecting a pay cheque wasn’t enough for me. I knew I had to find something greater and, for me, being able to inspire people to travel is truly what keeps me going.

When you capture an incredible moment what do you hope it does for others when they see that image for the first time?

My hope is that it allows people to gain a deeper appreciation for amazing places around the world, inspires them to care about our planet, and hopefully gets them out of their comfort zone to explore and experience firsthand. I don’t think I would be half of who I am without travelling. It broke down my ego and made me see a world that was well outside the small town I grew up in.

Leap of faith: A man jumps across a deep crevasse on an Icelandic glacier, 2014.

You have been described as an influencer and an adventurer who promotes the preservation of nature through your work.

I strive to show the beauty of places but also stress that they are only going to remain beautiful if we make sustainability a priority in our lives. Whether it be eliminating single-use plastics, picking up trash or riding your bike to work (which I do when I’m home), it all plays a part. Sometimes it keeps me up at night thinking about my role as an influencer. I never wanted that title, nor did I ever expect to have real influence, but being able to promote what I see as good in the world is really valuable. 

What made you agree to become an ambassador for outdoor footwear brand KEEN? 

Over my career I’ve been able to work with hundreds of brands and get an inside look at what they stand for and what their priorities are. The most important thing for me is partnering with people who care about the environment and preservation of wild places. That is probably the most important aspect I look at when I consider working with a brand, and KEEN does that best. They care deeply about the concept of preservation and taking action to keep areas safe from development. 

Where was your most recent expedition?

I was just in the Ticino region of Switzerland shooting, hiking, mountain biking, canyoning and cliff jumping. 

Where to next?

I’m leaving for Greece in a few days. I haven’t done a trip to a warm place in over a year so I’m stoked to change it up before going back to the cold for a few other shoots.

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