Award-winning photographer Chris Burkard shares his thoughts on cold-water surfing, his purpose, and his children’s book The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth
By Chris Van Leuven
He’s always going somewhere. For more than a decade legendary surf photographer Chris Burkard has sought out inspiration while interacting with the natural world.
When Adventure Sports Journal caught up with Burkard over the phone he was hurriedly packing for a family climbing trip to Yosemite with his wife Breanne and their two sons.
He says that the trip was just a quick getaway – he hoped to climb the smooth, southwest face of Half Dome via the route Snake Dike (which he did) – before departing from his home in Arroyo Grande to New York City. A Sony ambassador, Burkard was scheduled to speak in New York on the company’s behalf “about social media and the importance of sharing your voice on the digital platform.” From there, he would head to Iceland to help produce a film with six-time world surfing champion Stephanie Gilmore and the band MGMT.
Twenty six: that’s the number of times Burkard has visited Iceland – known for its expansive glaciers and beautiful landscape – to capture surfing stills and video.
His work is familiar throughout both the surfing and climbing world, and his images have graced more than 30 magazine covers worldwide. “I set out to find the places people had written off as too cold, too remote, too dangerous to surf,” he said at a TED Talk in 2015.
On January 14, 2015 Burkard captured images of climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson as they completed the free Dawn Wall on El Capitan, in Yosemite, known as the most difficult rock climb in the world.
Since 2006 he’s won ten awards for his images, including the Red Bull Illume Award (2010), second place in The World Open of Photography (2012), People’s Choice Winner at the Olympus Pro Photographer Showdown (2013), the Visionary Photography Award from the PhotoImaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association (2016), and Land Category Winner at the Salt Surf Photo Contest (2016).
Photography and film is just part of the equation. Burkhard has also published five books: The California Surf Project, The Plight of the Torpedo People, Distant Shores, High Tide: A Surf Odyssey, and The Boy who Spoke to the Earth.The California Surf Project is about a surfing road trip down Highway 1 in a Volkswagen bus; The Plight of the Torpedo People is about world-class bodysurfers; Distant Shores is about surfing on six continents; High Tide: A Surf Odyssey is a collection of photos from Burkard’s surf travels from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean and more; and The Boy who Spoke to the Earth is a children’s book.
In the digital world, Burkard has more than two million followers on Instagram (@chrisburkard). He’s also a public speaker and calls his 10-minute TED Talk “The Joy of Surfing in Ice-Cold Water” “one of the hardest and most challenging things you’ll ever do.” It has been viewed over 1.5 million times.
These days Burkhard has expanded his search to find meaning and inspiration to include warm-weather and other more exotic landscapes and pursuits, such as ocean diving in the Aegean Sea, mountain biking and canyoneering in Switzerland, rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park, and viewing wildlife in Denali National Park.
The world is his subject.
Growing up in San Louis Obispo, Burkard was an obsessed bodysurfer and stand-up surfer (“body surfing is my favorite”), and he frequented Pismo Pier every chance he got. He picked up a camera seriously at 19 and began capturing images of surfing. Although he would have attended college if he’d had the opportunity, “it just wasn’t in the cards for me,” he says. “I valued education. That was always very important to me. There was an alternate path to [education]. I did internships, and made sure I was able to get outdoors [instead].”
At age 20, he interned at Transworld Surf magazine as a photo editor. “I poured everything I had into it. At the latter end of 20 I knew what I wanted to do. I knew this was it. I was stoked on what I knew and what I wanted to do. And I set my sights on those things.” It was also around this time that he married Breanne, whom he met while still in high school, and then at age 21 in 2008, he was hired as Senior Staff Photographer at Surfer. Though successful as a surf photographer, he was hesitant to photograph activities that he didn’t know well. To Burkard, this fear of the unknown held him back, but “as I started to shoot more action sports, I realized that I didn’t have to know the sport inherently, so that was cool and refreshing and at the same time it opened me up to a lot bigger world,” he says.
His Faith and Purpose
Burkard sees a connection between his spiritual life and chosen profession. A member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, he mentions his faith on his Instagram page and has been profiled in many LDS-specific news sites including those in Deseret News and Huffington Post. He finds a larger meaning in his work beyond merely clicking his shutter in wildly inhospitable environments.
“In photography, if you find a purpose for your work, or a greater vision or a mission, whatever you want to call it, it gives fulfillment to what you’re doing,” he says. “This way you aren’t aimlessly clicking shutters.”
Faith helps drive him. “My work always has spiritual undertones. The more spiritually minded we can be the better.”
Although he never served a mission for his church, he is all the more motivated to impact people through his work and public speaking. “I take seriously that I talk with thousands of people on a daily basis. I consider what I’m portraying in the world around me; this is one of the concepts of the [The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth] book. I didn’t want to pass on this inherent fear of the unknown. I want kids to explore.”
The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth
Looking over the coffee table books Burkard has put together, there’s an obvious theme: surf, surf, surf, surfing in Russia … and then The Boy who Spoke to the Earth, written by Burkard with illustrations by Disney Interactive artist David McClellan. The book uses illustrations of arches, thick forests, steep waterfalls and more – heavenly places – while the story is about a boy asking the Earth where to find happiness.
Some of the illustrations resemble the amazing places Burkard’s visited.
“I wrote it for my kids first,” he says. “It was more meant to be [about] things that I learned along the way, and hoped to share with people.”
Cold Water Photography
Burkard opened his TED Talk from March 2015 with a story from Lofoten Norway, where the water was “hovering right at freezing. The air, a brisk negative 10 with wind chill,” he says as he described his selfie on the screen, calling the image a sign of “pure joy.” The day he captured the image it was so cold that he could feel the blood rushing away from his extremities to his vital organs. His face is beet red and his cheeks are pushed in by his thick, snug wetsuit.
However, when on stage it’s hard to believe he’s the same person. His face doesn’t have that same look – no windburn, no chapped skin, no visible scars. There are no signs that he’s spent years in some of the harshest conditions in the world.
We asked Burkhard why, after starting his career shooting surfing near warm beaches, he now refers to himself as a cold-water fanatic.
“I think it was compounded thing,” he says. “I was losing the enjoyment of going to places that … didn’t seem very fulfilling or rewarding. I sought out places that I thought would be more unique and have a [greater] level of adventure to them. I [also] knew there was greater money to be made shooting what people hadn’t seen before. That’s what drew me there. I wanted to bring back this new, unique thing.”
One of his videos in Iceland opens with the sound of wind blowing over the mic and him walking along the shore in hideously cold conditions. “I’d trade white sand beaches for icebergs any day.”
Anyone who is familiar with filmmaking knows it takes hours or weeks to capture footage. In Burkard’s case, this means getting continually lashed by frozen ocean water.
“One of the worst things ever on these cold trips is getting warm. That’s a totally tedious process. I never look forward to it. I don’t think I’ll ever figure this out.”
It All Comes Together
On Burkhard’s Instagram page, certain images and captions catch the eye. And these aren’t necessarily his surf photos, which these days aren’t his major focus. Just as compelling are his images from sport climbing in Kalymnos, Greece, swan diving from a bridge in Lavertezzo, Switzerland, and early morning surfing by the Pismo Beach Pier.
One image we keep coming back to is his shot of Pete Mendia, under a fan-like wave, riding evergreen and sky-blue water in South America. It’s one that Burkard says has won awards including the Red Bull Illume, an international action and adventure photography contest. Of it he writes: “When it all does come together, nothing really comes close to shooting a perfect wave. It’s hard to describe. In the moment it is a mixture of bliss and fear. Because you never know if what you imagined shooting is as good as the actual image.”