At 32 years old, Chris Burkard is still learning. The self-taught photographer and Pismo Beach, California native has become one of the most prominent storytellers of the social media age, amassing over 3 million Instagram followers with his stunning landscape shots from around the world. He has become a published author eight times over, a TED speaker, and creative director of his own studio.
Still, the husband and father of two feels most excited when he’s a student.
“If you get comfortable in what you’re doing, and it becomes second-nature, that’s when growth stops. That’s when you stop learning,” say Burkard.
“Anything that’s worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer a little bit,” he adds. “If it doesn’t require sacrifice, then it’s not usually worth it.”
Over the course of his career, Burkard has come to know sacrifice quite well. As a 19-year-old falling in love with the craft, he had to walk away from the security of a job and the opportunity to be the first in his family to earn a degree in order to pursue his passion.
“I think every person comes to a point where they have to weave their own path and do their own thing, and that was my moment to kind of define [myself],” he says.
“I’d go back to my day job of being a mechanic, and like, ‘I don’t want to be filled to my elbows with grease. I want to find a way to stay out and play, and be in the ocean.’” – Chris Burkard
Living out of his car and looking for ways to stay afloat, Burkard began taking pictures of surfers at his hometown beach, chasing them down when they would return to shore in hopes of convincing them to buy CDs of his shots.
“I would just do anything I could to make ends meet in some way, shape, or form,” he says. “It was basically borderline begging.”
“I didn’t come from money,” he adds. “It wasn’t that [my family wasn’t] supportive; it was just that they were really worried. And they were really concerned — really fearful that this was going to turn out bad for me.”
At age 20, Burkard landed an internship with Transworld Surf Magazine, along with the first ever Follow the Light Foundation Grant. He used the money to fund a surfing trip along the California coast, and at 22, he published his first book, the California Surf Project, along with friend Eric Soderquist.
Still, the challenges weren’t over. Early in his career, Burkard was on assignment in the far south of Chile and nearly lost everything when a boat captain drove straight into a wave, damaging $30,000 worth of camera equipment.
“I had about $30,000 worth of gear get soaked in Chile when a boat captain drove us into a wave, and it was one of the most heinous experiences of my life. I thought my whole career was over, because that was everything I had — everything I owned at that time.” – Chris Burkard
“I thought my whole career was over, because that was everything I had — everything I owned at that time,” he says.
“The plan was to go out and shoot this outer reef, right? In the really far south of Chile. And we got out there, and the waves were incredible, and it was offshore, and everything we kind of dreamed about. And ultimately, halfway through the session, the boat captain — who was drunk from the night before — was kind of dozing off at the wheel of this small Panga boat […] Basically, the wave just launched over the bow and I was sitting there with all my gear. I was, like, pouring saltwater out of my camera.”
It is this lesson, perhaps, that Burkard wishes to impart above all. The challenges never stop, even as his list of clients has grown to include the likes of Apple, ESPN, National Geographic Adventure, and Outside.
“I aim to go to locations that inspire me, that make me excited — make me want to share a story. And I think when you get into those situations, you realize that’s where the best version of yourself is going to come about.” – Chris Burkard
“For me, life is full of imperfections. I just got back from a trip to Utah, and my car broke down like five times,” he says.
“There’s trips I come back and I just feel heinously sick, or I come back with some rash, or I’ve got parasites — I mean, this is just the reality of being on the road for as much as I am.”
What makes it all worthwhile, he adds, is the chance to capture and share something special, something that might inspire someone else or bring them closer to another part of the world. That, and the knowledge that he’s pursued the things that inspire him most.
“If you have an opportunity and you don’t take it, the feeling of what could have been will eat away at you,” says Burkard.
“Be willing to take risks, even if you fail, because you’ll learn something about yourself and your life.”