Meeting Chris Burkard | Photographer & Story Teller

Some people dream about meeting their heroes like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, or Alex Honnold. And while sure, I’d also like to meet those guys because of all the things they’ve achieved over their careers, I really wanted to meet Chris Burkard. Even though you may never have heard of him, you’ve definitely seen his work. And that work has had, arguably, the greatest impact on this path of photography and storytelling that I am on today. 

Chris Burkhard is an award winning explorer and photographer who’s traveled around the world capturing some of the most incredible images of this planet. Most notably, his surf photography in arctic waters. And thanks to Icebreaker and Backcountry, Courtney and I were able to meet Chris in an intimate setting of 20 people for film showing, hike, and slide show. It was incredible, to say the least.

After going on a hike around the Olympic Park trails (near our place), we came back to the Backcountry Event Space for some snacks and drinks. This is where we first got to chat with him. Trying to do my best not to act completely star stuck and fumble over my words, I tried to think of something that people probably don’t talk about much with him… like the time he rode his bike up all 6 canyons in Salt Lake City for a total of 20K of climbing over 175 miles. In the rain and snow. He was pretty stoked to tell the story and I was just stoked to be talking with him at all as if he was a normal guy we chatted up in a bike shop.

Afterwards, the group of us sat down to watch a film that Icebreakers shot with Chris on a receding glacier in New Zealand. He was challenged with taking a single photo that would allow us to view our relationship with nature through a new lens. The film was moving, and really took the audience through all the stages of Chris’s creative process. Over the week of his assignment, he skied through the glacier, hiked above the moraine of the glacial lake, floated around the icebergs on the lake via boat, and eventually flying above the entire cirque to capture it all. The story is trying to explain humans impact on one of the fastest receding glaciers in the world. Below is the single shot he came up with.

Following the film, which was ironically, the first time he saw the final version of the film too, he started his slide show. An unlike a normal slide show presentation, where the presenter talks about some epic trip they just came back from or a momentous part of their career; Chris, instead, chose to talk about some of the follies of his career with some photos as backup. This included the time he was arrested in Russia at age 22 for having an issue with his Visa, and subsequently being deported to Korea. Other stories talked about how dangerous of a decision it was to proceed with his iconic “Under The Arctic Sky” trip during one of Iceland’s worst storms on record. It just showed how humbling these experiences can be, and how to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Then came the Q&A portion of the night, where unlike most speakers, it became the best part. Chris dove into every question he was asked with more than just some cookie-cutter responses. Here are a few of the ones that really resonated with, and would be beneficial to anyone who aspires to work in the creative field.

Do not tell the audience something they already know

As in, don’t describe a photo of a cold place by saying, it was cold, the snow was white, etc. Tell them how you felt in the moment, tell them how each breath left ice crystals on your face, tell them how you constantly battled the effort to exhaustion but feared sweating for then it would turn to ice. It is insulting to the audience to tell them how blue the water is in a photo of a blue lake… they already know how blue that lake is. This seems so obvious now, but a mistake I have continuously made throughout my works.

Find a humanizing element to tell a story through

There is nothing interesting about finding a new wave, he says. What is interesting is the people who call that wave home, or the ones who have lived there their whole lives and never surfed it once. This can be extrapolated to any story. It’s not the unclimbed mountain peak that’s interesting, its the humans that climb the peak that is what we are all captivated by. The reasons they choose to suffer, the hardships they face along the way, and ultimately their success and failures that we can learn from.

There are two paths one can take in a career.

One where you do it for the money, and the other being following your passion. Chris became a Staff Photographer when he was around 21 for Surfer Magazine, allowing him, for the first time, to provide for his family on a real salary while still shooting photos. But shooting photos in “not-so-exotic places” of surfers on white sand beaches in order to sell Ads and sponsors quickly lost its appeal. These weren’t the stories he wanted to tell, or trips he wanted to go on. And that lead to him eventually choosing his passion for adventure of arctic surfing, and leave the stability of a “real job.”

Periods of boredom are needed in one’s creative pursuits.

He was asked if he feels worthless if he doesn’t have his camera on him at all times. To that he explained the need for other means of storytelling. Either through spoken word or written. On his 52hr, record setting, bike ride circumnavigating Iceland that he did without his camera capturing everything, he said he had tons of time to think about future projects and creative outlets. This was time he says he desperately needs in order to keep the creative juices flowing, and not be bogged down by the constant need to shoot or create works.

Best of the Rest

-Best piece of advice he ever received is don’t get good at something you hate doing. 
-Don’t ask for food in a Russian Jail.
-If it doesn’t require suffering, then it’s not a passion, it’s an interest. 
-Just because it’s a dream job doesn’t mean it can’t leave you unfulfilled and depressed.
-Adventure stories fall all the same story arch. Go on adventure, have some hardships and struggles, overcome, and triumph.
-Traveling is the greatest privilege that we can ever have. Go places and come back with stories, stories to share with people that may never go there, but could inspire them to go. 

Obviously, this short post of a single evening with Chris Burkard does not do it justice. If you ever have the opportunity to meet him, or take one of his workshops, I highly reccomend it. You, and your work, will benefit so much from listening to a single one of his stories. This man is a story teller, and a damn good one at that!

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