Photographer Profile - Chris Burkard: "In life, there are no shortcuts to joy"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday June 30, 2015

Suffering for one’s art is generally held to be a positive thing. “Can an artist do anything if he's happy?” asked writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley. “Would he ever want to do anything? What is art, after all, but a protest against the horrible inclemency of life?”

Photographer Chris Burkard  is a pretty happy guy. Yet he also believes in the value of suffering. In his case, it’s not mental anguish that motivates and gives meaning to his work, but physical pain that, he says, leads to a personal bliss. Recently, he’s been chasing that bliss by surfing and photographing some of the most inclement waters and inhospitable environments on the planet.

Over the past few years, Burkard has emerged as one of the country’s leading surfing and outdoor-lifestyle photographers. His images have appeared in Surfing Magazine, the New Yorker, Outside, National Geographic Adventure and other publications, as well as in marketing for brands such as Microsoft, Volkswagen, Pacifico, American Airlines and Patagonia.

He has built a wide social-media following and is regularly featured in photo blogs that recount his tales of adventure—particularly his surfing excursions in the frigid waters and frozen landscapes of Norway, Iceland, Russia, Alaska, and Chile.

Those extreme surfing odysseys are also the subject of a TED Talk  by Burkard that has been seen more than 950,000 times since its release this spring. In it, he explains how a dream career he had carefully built left him unsatisfied.

“I set out seeking adventure, and what I was finding was only routine,” he says in the talk. “It was things like WiFi, TV, fine dining and a constant cellular connection that were trappings of places that were heavily touristed, in and out of the water. And it didn’t take long for me to start feeling suffocated.”

Instead, Burkard began what he calls a “personal crusade against the mundane,” surfing in places no one else would go—where, as he notes, he could “literally feel the blood trying to leave my hands, feet and face and rush to protect my vital organs.”

His way out of the mundane, in other words, was to begin to die a little.

“My point,” Burkard said in a recent interview, “was that anything worth doing is going to require some suffering.”

One Kernel of Truth

In a sense, Burkard’s message is similar to that of the full-on adrenaline junky in constant need of a new fix. “If there’s one thing I’ve realized, it’s that any career, even one as seemingly glamorous as surf photography, has the danger of becoming monotonous,” he says in his TED Talk.

The central point of the presentation, however, isn’t about the rush he gets from danger or the pain of being immersed in freezing water. Rather, it’s about the transcendence that the experience provides, a hard-won state of absolute mindfulness.

“I realized all [the] shivering had taught me something,” he says in the talk. “In life, there are no shortcuts to joy. Anything that is worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer, just a little bit. And that tiny bit of suffering that I did, for my photography, added value to my work.”

Speaking recently, Burkard noted that preparing for the TED Talk provided a degree of suffering in itself. “I’d always wanted to create something that was worthy of sharing on that stage,” he said. “But I really didn’t know what it was like to put together something like that—it was such an astronomical process—hands down, one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. I revised the talk 17 times.”

The result was another form of personal enlightenment.

“It really forced me to boil down the entirety of my career to one kernel of truth that I wanted to leave people with,” Burkard said. “The only thing I could speak to was my own personal experience—what I’ve done to find happiness and truth and joy.”

Photography has been inextricably bound up in that experience, both a catalyst for Burkard’s journey and it’s happy byproduct. He grew up on the Central California coast, near Pismo Beach, and, like a lot of other kids in the area, he surfed. In high school, perhaps inspired by the beauty of the landscape around him—he wasn’t far from the famously photographed vistas of Big Sur—Burkard loved art and experimented with drawing before latching onto photography.

The reason was simple: With photography, he could be at the beach, surfing with his friends, and at the same time create something that would last as more than a mere memory.

“Photography allowed me to be present in the moment, while also reflecting on it,” he says.

The Meaning of Landscape

After high school, Burkard put all his focus on photography. “It wasn’t a question of going to college,” he says. “I didn’t have the funds for that, and I wanted to learn by doing.” Instead, he went to the desert southwest and studied landscape photography. Later he came to realize he wanted something more—and that his future lay in the water.

“I wanted to see the world, and I felt that for a poor kid from Central California, the only way to do that was to have a job that would let me be out there and hit the road, and what better way to do that than through surfing,” he says.

An internship at Transworld Surfer magazine launched his editorial career, and that in turn was his ticket to see (and surf) the world. Eventually, his search for a personal satisfaction—one apart from his career accomplishments—led him back to where he started. In 2006, he published the book California Surf Project, a visual tour up and down the coast of his home state.

The book reflects Burkard’s earlier interest in landscape. “When I’m home, I’m inspired by the landscapes, like Big Sur. They rejuvenate me,” he says.

Throughout his career, Burkard’s surf photography has been more about place than action. Ironically, one of the subtexts that can be taken away from his TED Talk is that landscapes are, ultimately, just views, and that any view can pall.

The real meaning of a landscape is what we bring to it when we see it, what a photographer invests it with emotionally. When he was no longer able to invest himself in the world’s loveliest surfing spots, Burkard went looking for its harshest.

Speaking in his TED Talk, Burkard noted, “I gave a piece of myself in these places. What I walked away with was a sense of fulfillment I’d always been searching for.”


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