Adventure photographer Chris Burkard’s latest book, Wayward, might be his most revealing work yet, and not just because of the stunning images. In its pages, Burkard opens up about his life and career, sharing the stories behind the photos. From his early days trying to break into the world of surf photography to far-flung expeditions to places like Russia and Iceland, the book is full of revealing details (did you know that Burkard is actually colorblind?). Wayward offers much more than just great photography. It’s a portrait of the man behind the camera, too.
“If I’ve learned anything over the last 20 years, it’s that books don’t write themselves,” Burkard tells Men’s Journal. “You can shoot all the best images of your life, but if you don’t have a story to tell, what’s the purpose?”
We caught up with Burkard at the Breitling watch showroom in San Diego, CA—he’s a Breitling brand ambassador and was in town to promote the new Superocean line of watches. In between signing books for fans, the renowned photographer talked with us about his partnership with Breitling, the impetus for his new book, and how adventuring to the far corners of the globe has shaped him over the years.
“You shoot enough landscapes, those landscapes change you,” he says.
Men’s Journal: You’re particular about what companies you partner with. What drew you to Breitling?
Chris Burkard: First off, there’s this incredible tie to the aviation industry. And in the last five to 10 years, aerial photography has become a huge passion of mine. When you start to understand the history of the brand, you realize they weren’t just making timepieces, they were making tools for pilots to be able to measure their fuel consumption and all these things. It’s really cool. I had an affinity for the brand when I realized that.
When people were like, “Oh, what do you know about the brand?” I’m like, “Well, this is what all my pilot friends I highly respect covet, Those are the wrists I’d seen them on.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the fanfare of seeing Brad Pitt wearing a Breitling. But to me, you look at the brand ambassadors, and you’ve got Kelly Slater and you’ve got astronauts. To be even remotely attached to that roster feels like an incredible honor.
You’ve had a highly successful photography career. Was there a specific moment you felt, “I made it”?
The truth of the matter is, I don’t feel that way. I never did.
There were lots of small victories along the way: when I won the Red Bull Illume, or when I won this award, when I won that award, or when I stood on the TED stage. But to be honest, I think it’s just my nature that when those things happen, I’m sort of looking at the flaws in the picture. No pun intended. I’m always thinking, “Oh, well, the photo’s great, but you should have seen the one that got away.”
I consider being a dad a great accomplishment. Being able to communicate humbly to millions of people about what I love—that’s an accomplishment to me. And that people are inspired by what I do; that to me is the greatest thing.
I love the fact that I am only successful if I work hard. I don’t know what it is, but I was given a drive—at times it’s hard to understand where it comes from. But it has fueled me the most. Probably that and stubbornness. I’ve never been the most creative. I’ve never been the most talented, never been the most fit. I’m just the one who’s willing to thrust himself into situations where others aren’t.
How do you plan for your trips?
The secret behind great photography is great planning. For me, it really straddles this line between expedition and photography. You’re a part of the crew. You’re just as trusted and just as relied upon as everybody else. If things go wrong, not to be dramatic, but it’s life or death. Other times, it’s a commercial shoot and it’s not life or death, but it’s kind of life or death in a career sense—you hate to fuck it up.
Where am I going? What are the conditions looking like? I can’t overstate how important it is to have local knowledge. For me, all my most successful trips, whether I’m going to Kamchatka or the Aleutian Islands, depended on local intel. That means talking to someone who’s been there: a fisherman, a boat captain, a pilot. I’ve had a lot of long nights with Skype calls to Russia when I’m trying to plan a trip with a translator. That level of dedication goes a long way. It’s the difference between a successful trip and a non-successful trip.
Any big failures that turned into lessons?
Yeah. This book, that’s all it’s about. Wayward is really a partial memoir written from the perspective of taking an unconventional path to get to what you want. Yeah, I have some cool photographs to share, but the real important things are the stories behind them, and the times where things didn’t come together.
The time when I was stuck in a Russian jail cell because my visa had the wrong entry date, and despite my 21-year-old self that was terrified and scared and pissed off at the world, I realized later I had nobody to blame but myself. That was a huge life lesson. Being interrogated, being thrown in a cell, being deported to Korea, then having to go back and tell my editors that I wasted all their money—those are make-or-break moments.
The kernel of truth I learned is that to be changed by travel means that process happens before you leave your front door. It happens in the planning. It happens in the respect that you give the culture and how lightly or how heavily you take the experience. There are times when you feel invincible, and the world has a way of shutting you down very quickly.
What was the hardest shot to get?
There’s one\ I shot in the Aleutian Islands, and it’s this beautiful photo of a volcano with a surfer doing a turn on a perfect crystal-clear day. And what’s significant about it is that it’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. Oftentimes an image will give a hint to the viewer where they could draw some conclusions. But in this case, you can tell the whole story from one photo.
And I think that’s really special. Going there, knowing how harsh it was, knowing how rugged it was, my editors were so concerned whether this was worth it. I got there and sat for eight days in dense fog and snow and rain. The place is called the “cradle of storms.” I was naive enough to think that I might get a day that was clear and beautiful with the right surf, wind, swell, and tide. It feels like a gift from above.
I love that photo for what it represents. It encapsulates the hard work that I’ve put into those types of trips, and the goal to bring back something that when you look at it, it feels otherworldly. There are otherworldly moments out there on this planet. We just have to seek them out.
How did you choose the stories that went into Wayward?
It was all based on life lessons. Some of them are about relationships and family, and having kids with this risky career, and managing risk and life and love. Others are about forming friendships and burning bridges. My hope is that later in life, I’ll have even more stories like this to tell.
I didn’t want to wait ’til I was 50, 60, 70 to write an autobiography. I wanted to give people coming up in the creative space the opportunity to see somebody who they may define as successful be vulnerable with their experiences. I think the world needs more of that. I wanted to say, “Hey, I have made all the mistakes you can make, and maybe you can learn from a couple of these, or you can give yourself permission to make that mistake.”
You’ve been all over the world shooting photos. What kinds of trips and adventures call to you? What gets you excited?
Before, I was traveling to places that my editors were excited about. And they often tended to be run of the mill. You’re selling the story of adventure, but it wasn’t really there. You’re looking out at a perfect wave on a tropical island, but you might turn around and there’s a lodge.
For me, I’m very vulnerable to places that are off the beaten track. A lot of them tended to follow the Ring of Fire or be in the subarctic. These places where finding true remote, untouched landscapes is very possible. Even saying that phrase now sounds kind of contrived because where in the world is untouched? Well, they’re out there. Those places exist.
I’m drawn to places that are unique, that are remote, that are out there, but also places I can share with people that feel accessible in some way. I love being able to go somewhere like Iceland or Norway or the Faroe Islands or Alaska that people can actually go, if they’re willing. It’s not that the barrier of entry is necessarily cost, the barrier to entry sometimes is just, are you willing to go? It’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be hard.
For me, colder locations in general tend to capture my heart a little more. I think you appreciate those nice days more. The weather is constantly changing. There’s something about a location where the mountains meet the ocean. I’m drawn to places like that. I’m drawn to the drama—those are places that feel like the ends of the earth.
Any favorite places that you love to return to?
I like going back to places to be more immersed, to have something to care about, to have people to care about, to have an environmental issue to actually learn about. And I think that the more I’m able to go back to those places, the more I feel like a traveler, not a tourist.
I’ve been to Alaska countless times. Norway, as many times as you can count. Iceland, like 70 times. These are environments that I feel like I’m dedicating myself to. The goal should be fostering connectivity.
How do you toe the line between risk and getting the shot?
I have two young boys, I have a wife, I have a staff of people that I’m responsible for. I feel the weight of risk every day in my life. In the beginning of my career, I never would’ve taken the risks I take now. Essentially, my job has gotten more risky, but I have become more attuned, dedicated myself to learning that craft, and dedicated myself to understanding these landscapes more and more. You can mitigate risk by spending the time to understand it.
The first time I went driving in the Arctic Circle in winter, it was the scariest experience of my life. But after a couple seasons, you start to develop a sixth sense. I think a big part of it is the time I spend researching; that’s risk mitigation. It’s not just because I want to capture the best shot in the best light or get the best thing for the client. I need to know that if I’m going to put myself in a situation where I’m hanging on the side of El Cap, or I’m ski mountaineering, I’m with people I trust, and I trust in my own skills.
At this point in my career, I don’t get the privilege to fake it until you make it. I’ve done that. And when I did that, I tore my ACL heli-skiing. I did stupid shit, where I was like, “You know what? I blew it.” And that was my fault.
So now when those jobs come up, I’m very cognizant of my boundaries. That’s one of the great lessons that life gives you as you get older—you start to learn your boundaries more. You learn where you can push them and you learn where they can push back.
What’s one piece of gear you never travel without?
To be honest, it’s funny, but probably noise canceling headphones. In a world that’s getting louder and louder, it’s never been more important to be able to hone in on your thoughts. And that’s one of the tools that allows me to do it. I find the time I get on a plane is a privilege, an opportunity to just stop and think and feel. You pop those headphones on and you’re like, “Oh, the world is gone.”
How has your relationship with the outdoors changed over time?
My relationship with the outdoors has evolved in so many ways. I grew up in a single-parent home with my mom. I didn’t grow up in the outdoors. My leap into the outdoors with a camera wasn’t because I was some badass adventure outdoorsman. I just wanted to get out of the small town I grew up in, and I thought the camera was a way to do that.
The outdoors was a very exclusive place that I didn’t feel a part of as a kid. Nowadays, I am very aware of that exclusivity some people feel. And I want to create more openness. I advocate very strongly for a San Diego-based nonprofit called Outdoor Outreach that gets underprivileged kids into the outdoors, because I was one of them.
Over time, it’s been a beautiful thing to find answers, find healing, and find a place in the outdoors to ask tough questions about not only the world around me, but myself.
It should scare you. It should open your eyes. It should change you. That’s what the outdoors should do.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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