I was up late trying to beat a bad case of insomnia when I saw Carson Daly’s interview with pro photographer Chris Burkard, who apparently has a knack for traveling to the most remote corners of the Earth to capture his travels, nature and usually, surfers in action.
Based in San Luis Obispo, CA, Chris is a senior staff photographer for Surfer Magazine, and contributes regularly to various international publications and brands like Patagonia. The self-taught photographer and artist has worked on 3 book projects: Distant Shores: Surfing the Ends of the Earth, The California Project and Plight of the Torpedo People.
I was inspired and amazed by Chris’ work and thought it would be fun to find out more about the man behind the lens of so many awe-inspiring photos.
What pivotal event made you decide to become a photographer?
I can’t say that there was one moment that really sparked my decision, but it was a progression of growing up loving art and slowly finding the medium of the camera and taking photographs. Throughout high school I found photography as a perfect outlet to document my travels and adventures with friends. It was a perfect combination of storytelling and artistic expression. From that moment on, I knew that I wanted to find a way to make photography my career.
What were some of the most difficult places to take photos? Why?
For me, the most difficult places to shoot tend to also be my favorite places to shoot. The harsh conditions that accompany my trips to the Arctic are by far the most difficult places to shoot. Most days, you are at the mercy of nature and have to put in a lot of time in grueling weather to get the images you want. Yet, even amidst the harsh climate there are glimpses of beauty, and finding them is by far the reward for shooting in the Arctic.
What advice would you give to an amateur travel photographer who wants to go professional?
Besides constantly shooting to improve your portfolio, my best advice would be to find a professional photography company and try to intern/assist them in any way possible. Being exposed to the business side of the industry will give you a huge leg up as you progress in your own photography. Being able to see how a professional handles jobs, goes through their workflow and ultimately how they make money doing what they love is a huge help.
Are there photography tips you would offer to regular travelers?
I think the key to capturing unique imagery is not being afraid to take one step closer for an image — this mainly applies to capturing the local culture and people. Every time I go to capture an image of a local, I can usually get away with getting a little closer, which usually produces a much more interesting image. Another piece of advice I would say is to not take out your camera right away. Get to know the area and the people first. Experience the place and find the things you find most unique, then take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves or create opportunities to capture unique moments.
What camera and or accessories do you use when taking photos?
I have been loving my Sony system. I shoot using the A7 and the A6000. They are both amazing cameras and allow me to shoot with the lightest, highest quality gear that is available. I am always trying to make my kit as light as possible and these cameras are a huge part of that.
Why is surfing and or the ocean a major focal point of your photography?
Photography gives me the ability to spend time in nature, and surf photography is one of the most intimate forms of photography with the natural surroundings. Whether from the beach or literally in the water, it allows me to not just document the action, but to be engulfed in it as well. I love experiencing the ocean just as much as the surfers but I use a different medium to interact with it.
Are you a surfer and/or swimmer? Are these necessary skills to capture some of your amazing photos?
My favorite thing to do is bodysurf which is a little bit of both. Growing up bodysurfing definitely gave me the comfort in the ocean as a swimmer, which is crucial for shooting good water photography. When shooting from the water you get in some precarious situations, as you are somewhat at the mercy of the ocean, and it helps to have the calmness to not panic and be comfortable no matter what situation arises.
How would you describe your new book, Distant Shores?
Distant Shores is a compilation of photos taken over the past 10 years of my career. Ammo Books wanted to create a comprehensive look at the varied locations that I’ve traveled to. In the book you will surf locations in Iceland, Norway, Russia, the Caribbean, Christmas Island, Nicaragua, Mexico, Chile, India and Alaska.
What is The California Surf Project? What was the most rewarding experience of your adventure?
The California Surf Project is a book based on a trip down the California coast with professional surfer Eric Soderquist. We packed enough supplies for a trip from Oregon to Mexico in Eric’s VW bus and looked to rediscover a bit about the coastline we grew up in. The experience had many highs and lows, but the most rewarding experience was probably being able to document the many unique stories and places that accompany the spectrum of regions within California. Second to that, once we released the book it was great to see the support of the surf community, family and friends all coming together at our art shows, and being able to retell the story to those who weren’t on the trip.
After traveling along most of the California coastline, what would you say are your top 5 favorite beaches in Cali?
Pismo Beach Pier (Pismo Beach, CA)
Refugio State Beach (Goleta, CA)
Cayucos (State Beach (Cayucos Beach, CA)
Sand Dollar Beach (Big Sur, CA)
El Capitan State Beach (Santa Barbara County, CA)
From your travels so far, what would you consider to be the best beaches in the world?
Beaches that have snow-capped peaks that drop straight to an empty remote coastline. But one of my favorite beaches that has everything I love in a beach is Unstad. Some of my favorite experiences and images have been from this Norwegian beach.
Are there beaches you want to visit that you haven’t visited yet? If so, what are they and what draws you to them?
I am drawn to beaches in places that most people would not care to go to the beach. Whether in Iceland, Norway, Russia or Alaska, all these places have conditions that deter many people from wanting to go anywhere near the beach. Any place that has large mountains butting up against the ocean and sand — that’s a beach I want to visit. One place I can’t wait to travel back to is Alaska. Though I was there recently, it still feels as if I haven’t been because of how much more there is to explore. I feel like I just saw the tip of the iceberg there. It feels truly like the last frontier with places that have no signs of human contact and plenty of wave set-ups to keep me exploring for many years.
How many cities and or countries have you traveled?
I have traveled to so many cities and countries that it’s hard to list at this point, but I can say I have been to every continent multiple times…except Antarctica.
What do you like most about traveling?
My favorite aspect of traveling is somewhat split. Half the reason I love to travel is to experience new places that inspire me and to help me grow as a person. The other half is to hopefully inspire others to go out and experience these places as well — to bring back a story and be able to share a piece of your experience with others.
What are some of the most remote destinations you’ve been? Why?
My travels to Alaska have probably taken me to the most remote locations. Whether exploring the many inlets and empty coastline on an old fishing boat or flying to the Aleutian Islands. Both of these places had potential for surf and there is always the potential to find new waves that no one has surfed. My latest trip to Alaska took us up the coastline on an old fishing boat as we made our way far from the nearest towns. The Aleutians was by far one of the more remote destinations I had ever traveled. Flying into a small town that gets maybe a handful of visitors a year, we would take ATVs towards the coastline each day. Sometimes on these ATVs for hours and hours, we found ourselves surfing waves and visiting beaches that may have never seen anyone in many years.
We know you like to be a little more daring when it comes to travel alone or with adults, but where would you advise a family with kids to go for a fun beach trip? Why?
I have 2 recommendations for both international and within the US. Internationally, I would say Nicaragua could be an amazing place to take a family that wants to experience a new culture and have fun at the beach. And Costa Rica offers great beach conditions, a great local culture and many places to stay. Stateside options include one of my favorite beaches to go with my family — Refugio State Beach. I take a camping trip there every year with my family and we camp on the beach for a week and enjoy the great little cove that is Refugio. The waves are great for learning new water sports and there is plenty of coastline to explore. Added bonus is definitely being able to camp within a stones throw of the water’s edge.