Chris Burkard began his career with a simple goal: become a photographer and use his job to see the world he couldn’t afford to see otherwise. He succeeded in short order, becoming one of the planet’s most sought-after surf photographers, with assignments taking him to tropical paradises from the Caribbean to the South Pacific. But the devout Latter-day Saint soon realized that amid his regular trips to vacation destinations, something was missing. He tried to find out what by giving up those tourist-heavy assignments in favor of remote surfing photography in places like Norway and Iceland. He also expanded his artistic repertoire, branching out to filmmaking, writing, advocacy and speaking — including a 2015 TED Talk that’s been viewed over 2 million times. He’s won prestigious photography prizes, been named a top 10 social influencer by Forbes, had films selected for the Tribeca Film Festival twice, has his own adventure-themed clothing line through Billabong, and has over 3.6 million Instagram followers. He spoke with Deseret Magazine about risk and reward, following his conscience, and about fulfillment itself. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You decided to pursue photography full time at age 19. What did you do before that, and what inspired you to pursue that dream?
Before I went out on my own as an independent photographer I worked at a magazine store in Pismo Beach, California. I was going to junior college, just trying to figure out who I was and what I was doing. And ultimately, I decided to work at this magazine store because I thought in some way, my hopes and dreams of becoming a photographer would be more realized if I was close to all these magazines that I loved to read so much. But the reality sets in, and it’s just like, “Is this really the dream that I wanted?” Long story short, I quit that job. I quit college. And I just was like, “I’m gonna pursue photography, whether I make it or not.”
Under what circumstances would you recommend others take a similar gamble on their careers?
I recommend everybody take a plunge within their career. Whatever you’re going into, here’s the thing: If everything you’re doing is regulated by safety, if all your decision-making is regulated by safety and protocols and how you’re going to get from point A to point B with the least amount of risk, you’re not going to feel in any way connected to that decision. There’s nothing to give up. There’s nothing to sacrifice. And without sacrifice, these opportunities become kind of meaningless. I would hope that everybody would, at some point, realize that they’re at a train station, and they’re packing their bags, and the train is arriving and leaving, and you’re never going to be ready for it. If you’re sitting at that train station and that train is leaving, you’re gonna have to throw your bag together and just jump on. And you might not be prepared, but that’s part of the whole process.
You lived in your car during your first photography internship. How did struggling like that inform your present perspective, as an established, secure 34-year-old, about the value of making sacrifices in pursuit of your goals?
Nineteen-year-old me, when I quit my job, when I quit school to travel, I did that for purely selfish reasons. I wasn’t thinking about my family, my career, my mom, my dad, even myself. I just wanted to make a paycheck, and I wanted to get stamps on my passport. But at a certain point, you start to realize that that’s not going to be enough to sustain you for the long term. This is why people have midlife crises. This is why people go into deep depression — because they have chosen a career path that doesn’t challenge them enough, and they become in some way complacent, or they feel lazy in that job. So for me, looking back now, I realized that in everything I do, there needs to be an element of challenge, an element of risk, an element for me to stay engaged, for me to stay sacrificial in what I’m doing.
You’ve traveled to Iceland over 40 times and have a special love for the backcountry there, publicly noting your pity for tourists who don’t get outside the capital of Reykjavik. Have you always been interested in remote parts of the world?
Ultimately, my interest in remote places was the byproduct of me realizing that I wasn’t fulfilled going to touristy places and selling these experiences that were truly not an adventure. I felt like a glorified travel agent going to places and working for the magazine — and I had this dream job and this dream career! But there was a sense of complacency. I was just going to places my editors wanted, shooting these assignments I wasn’t passionate about. I was waking up with a daunting feeling of repetition. I realized that I needed a greater challenge; I needed something that felt a little harder in my life to make the images feel more worthwhile. The pinprick of what it felt like to create those photos lasted longer. I remembered the images more. I felt more. I felt more deeply. And I mean that in the truest, realest of senses.
What were you hoping to accomplish on your 2020 Iceland trip, when you carved a new mountain biking path across the entire country? What surprised you the most?
Two things. First of all, my aim is always to showcase the beauty that is there if you’re willing to get off the beaten path. I take real pride and joy in hoping to show people a side of a place that they wouldn’t normally see and let them understand that this is actually accessible. Yes, that route was a little scary because we were the first ones to do it. But nowadays, I’ve had so many people reach out who want to do that trip, and we’ve been able to provide that information. So when you build a route, when you create a route, you are sharing your experience with that person in hopes that they’re going to come and have, in some way, an identical experience to you. If you go on a hiking trail, you have a way to connect with everybody that’s ever been on that trail, because you’ve seen the same things, you’ve felt the same things — and that’s really special. The other component of it was personally, when you’re in the elements like that, and you can’t just jump in a car, you can’t just jump in a tent, you can’t just run to your Airbnb, I think you subject yourself to something greater than just a tourism experience. You’re subjecting yourself to nature, a landscape, its many moods and its many seasons. And I think you walk away with a greater appreciation for this place.
How do you define fulfillment?
Fulfillment can come in many forms for many people. But for me, it’s not so much what it looks like; it’s what it feels like. Fulfillment to me is living a life that has less regrets. I want to be in a position where I have less regret. I want to be in a position where I feel like I’m lifting up other people, and that I’m in some capacity doing my best to give back to places that have given something to me.
How do you balance risk and reward in your work and in your life?
I made a film about Iceland a couple years ago. It was about surfing under the northern lights. And that film is all about this idea of risk versus reward, planning everything versus letting go. I think that in many ways, I’ve realized that risk is critical in my work and in my process. We all take risks. We speak our mind. We speak up. People protest. Those are risks we all take. And I think that the more we learn to get outside of our comfort zone, stand up for one another and stand up for our own work, that the more validated we become, the stronger we become, the more empowered we become. It’s that old saying: If your dreams don’t scare you, then you’re not dreaming big enough.