313: A Creative’s Crusade Against the Mundane

This week’s conversation is with Chris Burkard, an accomplished explorer, photographer, creative director, speaker, and author.

Chris travels to pursue the farthest expanses of Earth, working to capture stories that inspire humans to consider their relationship with nature, while promoting the preservation of wild places everywhere.

Layered by outdoor, travel, adventure, surf, and lifestyle subjects, Chris is known for images that are punctuated by untamed, powerful landscapes.

Through social media, Chris strives to share his vision of wild places with millions of people, and to inspire them to explore for themselves.

His visionary perspective has earned him opportunities to work on global campaigns with Fortune 500 clients, speak on the TED stage, design product lines, educate, and publish a growing collection of books.

At the age of 34, he has clearly established himself as a global presence and influence.

“Here’s a kernel of truth: anything worth pursuing is going to require us to suffer.”

In This Episode:

What inspired him to pick up a camera?

Oddly enough, my entry into photography wasn’t because I was aspiring to be an artist, or I was aspiring to explore the inner reaches of my capabilities as a human. It was just because I wanted to leave this small town. I grew up like many kids listening to the six o’clock news on repeat, and the conversations around the dinner table. And I was from a super blue-collar family, and I wanted to know what was out there. My world, the depth of my world was the national parks that I could drive to from my house, and the vacations we would take in the summer. I never left the country, never went anywhere. So when I picked up a camera, it was like I saw this tool, and I saw this thing as a way to maybe get me out into the world.

Capturing the opportunity

At 19… high school is over, life begins. I’m going to a junior college in town here, and I’m like, “You know what? This sucks. This is not what I want to be doing. This is not where I feel passionate.” Maybe the most mature thought I’ve ever had in my life for some reason came to me that I was like, “I am unprepared for this [photography] opportunity, but if I don’t take this opportunity now, it will always be just out of reach.” It’s like that idea of you’re at a train station and your bags aren’t packed, but the train is leaving, and you have to go. It doesn’t matter if you’re ready or not. Opportunities don’t really wait for you.

The not-so-easy path of suffering

I’ve chosen that path multiple times, and I’ve chosen it over and over in my life, and I still choose it today. In fact, I look back at those five years when I started my career feeding on 50 cents a day and living below poverty level, sleeping in my truck. I am in no capacity the most creative, talented person to ever hold a camera. I’m just the person who might be the most stubborn, the most willing to submit themselves to the craft, and to put in the hours

The “four burners” analogy for success

There’s this analogy of the four burners that I heard years ago. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this, you probably have. But where your life is like a stove top. And this is really simplifying things. But you have these four burners, one represents family, and one represents relationships, and one is health, your own health, and one is business. And in order to be successful, you have to turn one of them off. And in order to be really successful, you have to turn two of them off. And I think that I chose the really successful route, and in order to do that I made some real sacrifices, and it’s only been in the last four to five years that I’ve had to come to the full reality of what those decisions meant. And I guess there was an innocence to that experience and just being so driven by something at the ultimate demise of a lot of things.

His “dream job” was not fulfilling

The goal at first was just to collect stamps in my passport and get a paycheck. And that eventually evolved to realizing that there’s a lot of people at home who don’t get to experience these places, and I wanted to bring them back something meaningful. And in order for me to bring back something meaningful, the images had to be meaningful to me, and they just weren’t. And so I was going to the tropics, and I was going to places that truly didn’t mean that much. And so I eventually set my sites on places that were colder, harder to get to, required more patience, and effort, and energy, and a lot of things that ultimately the photographs really meant something when you’re on a beach in Iceland, and it’s negative 20, and you’re documenting a human being interacting with nature in such an amazing way. To me, the photograph started to mean something.

Going on a crusade against the mundane

I wanted to go on a crusade against the mundane, because my job, as dreamy as it is, and any career path, as dreamy as it may seem, doesn’t matter what they tell you, it can become at risk of becoming mundane. And I think that what I’ve realized is that the requirement, the barrier of entry for that is you need to have personal growth within that career path. And that’s what I think I’ve constantly tried to do over these years, is develop personal growth within my career path. It’s not always about suffering. I mean that would be such a masochistic way to look at it. It’s honestly about wanting to foster more meaningful experiences. And if I’m being transparent, there’s an element of suffering. And I think suffering and the fact that you’re giving more of yourself for something… that’s more meaningful than just clicking the shutter.

The importance of the moment

When I choose to do something, I need it to thrust me into the moment. I need to feel my feet planted. I mean, again, this is probably because I’m a lower evolved human being. I’m sure that there are many of us who can maybe just do that immediately, but when I’m creating artwork, when I’m creating something beautiful, or a story, or a narrative, I want to feel like I’m in that moment. And that’s oftentimes what suffering does for us.

It’s a privilege to choose suffering

I think that it’s important to acknowledge that the suffering I’m talking about is a privileged suffering. You’re allowing yourself to feel it, you put yourself there. Nobody forced you to climb Mount Everest. To tell stories that are just purely about the human struggle, it misses the point. There’s so much more that drives us to do these things, there’s so much more that that call upon us when we’re in those moments. And I think for me, yes, it’s a privilege. I acknowledge that, I’m choosing to be there because I also think, and I know that to not bring to the table all of my knowledge, my understanding, my skillsets, my awareness is almost to relegate my experience to something more simple, to something more mundane, and I don’t want the mundane.

Reflection is what brings meaning to moments

Those experiences in the field, they don’t really serve us unless we take the time to actually think through them, to process them, to digest them. It reminds me of a talk from the great travel writer Pico Iyer who touches on this. All of his greatest experiences were really manifesting in his bedroom while he was thinking through them, meditating on them. And I fully feel like for me, I place so much emphasis on human interaction, storytelling, whether that’s in a platform like this and/or if it’s in a platform like going and doing a film premier, or going and doing a slideshow, or speaking at a corporate event, whatever that might be to me. To me, that’s like one of the, I think, great ways in which those experiences are able to come full circle, because to not sit and fully process them, and leave them all in the field, or leave them all in the images, it doesn’t do them the full service. So I guess to say that truly life’s greatest mysteries of have evolved for me by just making sure that I think through them.

Hiding behind the lens

The camera for me was my way of filtering your complicated world. And all of a sudden I put the camera down, and I’m trembling. I’m this really well traveled person who’s seen stuff that many people should never see and/or experience beauty beyond explanation. Yet there was a moment in my life where I’m like, “Why is it hard for me to just be here without the camera.” Almost like this was my barrier of safety. And so for putting that down, starting to articulate these experiences, starting to say what they meant to me, what I felt and/or just being there without the purpose of shooting has been really healing, and it’s helped me come full circle. Back to your point of what you were saying earlier, the self-reflection can happen on a couch in your office.

Vulnerability strengthens relationships

My reference for vulnerability always comes from how I feel in the moment. And if I know something feels uncomfortable to say, and if I’m slightly scared to say it then I know that I’m speaking from a place of my truth, or a place of my honesty. And I tend to be a highly emotional person. This is why I have a lot of the fire, a lot of the volcano inside. And I’ve learned to try to see that place as a place of power, and not weakness. And I think that what this gets back to is that I like connecting with people. I used to be scared of that, but I like connecting with people, and I really like understanding people, and I genuinely want, even for selfish reasons, to connect people so that I can better understand myself. And I think that what I’ve learned over the last couple years is that in sharing the deep and more intimate parts of one self, I can then foster more deep and intimate relationships.

Therapy comes in many forms

I think sometimes people lose sight of what therapy means. Therapy is when broken down, we think of it as listening, or someone listening to us, whatever. But I think some therapy can also be you listening to your own body. What it needs, you’re giving it what it needs. And sometimes that doesn’t always mean to stay in an engaged flexed state, sometimes it means giving yourself the opportunity to heal something. I’ve never been good about that. So trying to listen, self-therapy. And then also actually going to a therapist, and from a relationship standpoint, that’s been really helpful, from a personal standpoint that’s been really helpful, from a psychedelic standpoint that’s been really helpful as well. And yeah, it’s been a really eye-opening experience, and it comes with a lot of pulling off bandages, and letting those wounds fester for a minute.

What is Chris’ purpose?

Find joy and share joy. “Man is that he might have joy.” That is what I believe. But also at the same time, my goal is to become more like my Father in heaven. So a more perfected version of myself. And perfect does not mean without sin. Perfect actually means whole, it means complete, that’s the translation. So I’m striving to become a more complete version of myself, so that I can better serve other people. I think that’s honestly what it all comes down to is service is at the root of… Any religion that I subscribe to, any religion that I really listen to, service is where it’s at. So in order to serve others, you have to first be able to serve yourself, and feel complete enough to offer something. And so that’s what I’m striving for. And in the midst of that, if it’s not bringing you joy, why are you doing it.

Learning to be empathetic

If I get too hung up sometimes it can ruin the entirety of an experience. And it’s hard for me. It’s hard for me to move past little things. Sometimes a word that an annoys me, or something that somebody might say, sometimes it’s hard for me to move past that. And I’ve gotten better at that, kind of empathizing. Empathy has become a big theme in the last two years, and I think the more I’ve learned to empathize and realize that empathizing with somebody doesn’t always mean agreeing with them, it’s really helped me to be a better communicator, be a better listener, lead with less emotion and anger.

If there’s one thing he could pass on to the world…

I want the world to tell better stories. And if there’s one phrase that helps to direct that, it’s that don’t describe to people what they can already see, tell people what it felt like to be there. You are the author of the story, so give me your experience. And if you can make it more visceral, you can tell me about the emotions around it, that’s going to really do the world a service to hopefully allow us to experience one another, to be put in each other shoes. And I think for anybody that aspires to create art, or just aspires to live in a creative way, I would really, really apply this practice.

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