One of photographer Chris Burkard’s favorite scriptures is found in Doctrine and Covenants 100:12: “Therefore, continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice; for behold, and lo, I am with you even unto the end.”
In the past month, Burkard, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has taken his 1.2 million Instagram followers on a journey from Switzerland to Canada to Norway. Burkard says his travels have made it impossible for him to deny the presence of a higher power.
“You can’t really travel without feeling like you see (God’s) hand in everything … without, in some capacity, recognizing his overwhelming effect on every human out there,” Burkard said.
Burkard’s own journey began when, as a little boy, he dreamed of traveling the world. It wasn’t until he was 19 and began taking pictures that he saw how he could make that dream a reality.
“It was at that point when I realized that this thing I wanted to do, travel, and this thing I enjoyed doing, photography, could actually come together to get me places,” Burkard said.
Photography began as a way for him to keep a record of his life but has become a career that allows Burkard, whose sponsors include Sony and Goal Zero, to travel to distant locations throughout the world capturing remote landscapes. Burkard's sense of adventure and willingness to endure extreme conditions have helped the central California native achieve popularity online, but his faith, his family and the people he has met along the way have helped him remain grounded.
Burkard says he has always felt a desire to express himself creatively and to be appreciated for his artistic abilities, but his organizational skills ultimately helped him make a name for himself.
Upon becoming a photographer for Surfer magazine, where he is still on staff as a senior photographer, Burkard attracted attention by organizing large expedition-type trips. He defines these as trips that required him to “plan how to get there, how to eat, how to survive.”
Earlier this year, Burkard was invited speak about these expeditions at an official TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. In his TED talk, which has garnered more than 1.4 million video views, he spoke of finding greater joy as a surf photographer in freezing water than he had ever experienced in warm water.
"I realized all this shivering had actually taught me something: In life, there are no shortcuts to joy," Burkard said in the TED talk. "Anything that is worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer just a bit, and that tiny bit of suffering that I did for my photography, it added a value to my work that was so much more meaningful to me than just trying to fill the pages of magazines."
Some of Burkard's photos in these freezing conditions were highlighted last month when he was invited to take over the Huffington Post Religion Instagram account and share his testimony alongside his photos.
"I'm drawn to these challenging places to endure these conditions because I believe that those experiences refine you," Burkard wrote below one of the photos he shared on the Huffington Post account. "The Lord doesn't want us to choose the easy way in life, he wants us to challenge ourselves and through those challenges we grow and evolve, we become the best versions of ourselves."
Burkard began to find his faith as an 8-year-old when an elementary school classmate named William Nau invited him to attend the LDS Church. Burkard’s mother, Maile, had been a member of the church as a young girl. Although she no longer attended, she was willing to let him form an opinion for himself.
When Burkard expressed an interest in learning more about the church from the missionaries, his mother, then a single parent, said she was also willing to meet with the missionaries. Burkard was soon baptized, and his mother returned to activity in the church.
The impact his membership in the church has made in his life is described simply.
“I’ve realized that there has been such a distinct difference in my life and in my career when I’ve been trying to follow what I know is right and when I haven’t been,” Burkard said before adding that, in a career that involves taking risks, his faith has provided him with an understanding of life’s whys that has “really elevated” him.
He calls social media “a funny new way of communicating. We’re all just kind of learning." He believes the key is establishing a clear goal. For Burkard, the goal of his Instagram account is “to inspire people that care about the planet and to motivate people to be willing to explore and see things.”
He is shocked by the following he has garnered, and he feels an overwhelming sense of responsibility. However, he attributes the success of his Instagram account to his dedication and desire to share good content.
“If you’re trying to put good content out into the world and overall you’re making an effort, that’s probably going to come back to benefit you,” Burkard said. “That’s what I put a lot of emphasis on, this idea of creating good content and trying to inspire people in some way.”
As his expeditions frequently last weeks at a time (he just returned from a 23-day trip to Europe), Burkard strikes a balance between his career and family life by prioritizing.
“In any career, it’s a matter of … making time for everything you’re doing and understanding that if you’re devoting too much time to any one thing, everything else can kind of be put on the back burner," Burkard said. "That’s really tough, so I think, for me, it’s a matter of evaluating and figuring out how to travel but not so much to the point where it affects relationships.”
Burkard commits time on the road to connecting with his sons, Forrest and Jeremiah, ages 3 and 1.
“I think there are a lot of other things you can do on the road to make traveling smoother, … communicating with them, shooting videos for them and creating stuff that makes them feel like they’re along for the ride," Burkard said. "It makes them feel like they’re important and like they’re involved as well, which is really helpful.”
Burkard says that being a dad has changed everything about his life. Specifically, it has made him consider the significance of his professional projects.
“I think about how it’s going to affect them and creating a future for them, something they’re going to feel like they can be apart of, and that’s kind of been a unique thing to evaluate my work that way," Burkard said. "You want to leave a legacy for them. You want to inspire them, and you also want to be there for them because no amount of me building my own career or my own name is going to really, ultimately help them if I’m not there.”
While his legacy is still being created, his images have caught the attention of people throughout the world, providing Burkard with a perspective and a platform on which to share it.
While his travels have made him appreciate where he comes from and the blessings that he has been given, they have also helped him understand where true happiness is found.
“Because we’re inundated with more stuff, we feel like we need those things to make us happy, and I think in a lot of ways it’s kind of an eye-opening experience for me to see and to understand how other cultures live with less,” Burkard said. “And yet, they’re happier.”
At times he has observed this happiness in the lives of LDS members as he has attended Sunday meetings and worshipped with them on dirt floors in places such as Iceland and Christmas Island. These journeys have made Burkard a proponent of finding joy and happiness regardless of your circumstances.
“I think the key is to have a clear understanding that the more you know, the less you need, and a lot of times, the less you have and the simpler you make the experience, the more you actually enjoy it,” Burkard said.