Chris Burkard is a name a lot of you already know. With three-quarters of a million followers on Instagram, five books, a TED talk, and even viral videos, all spawned from his love of capturing surfing in Iceland in the winter. After spending years hustling as a freelance surf photographer, and then working his way into a staff position at a surfing mag, he has since managed to expand his work into nothing short of an adventure photography empire that spans lifestyle and commercial works, as evidenced by his globe-trotting Instagram feed.
How did you get started with Instagram? How long until you realized how important of a tool it would be?
I got into it during a trip to Iceland about 2½ years ago. Some surfers I was with were like, “Hey! You’re blowing it since you’re not on here!” I got an account and mostly started posting just random moments from the road, but quickly realized that it could be so much more than that. I could use it really as a way to inspire people, and invite them along for my trips.
You have an amazing job that takes you all over the world. How did you manage to get it?
(Laughs) Well, I worked my ass off and lived below poverty for a number of years. I shot anything I could point my camera at, and with time I worked my way from intern desk to intern desk and started really trying to make a name for myself. I opted for the risky places and projects, the ones with high rewards, but the ones that could also leave you flat on your face if they didn’t work out. It took awhile, but eventually I made a name for myself doing these things. Traveling for me has always been a part of the gig. I got into this job to travel, and that is what has always been most inspiring to me.
Is it ever hard to juggle family life with all that travel?
It’s the hardest thing in the world. I have two kids and a wife at home, and we travel as much as we can, but it’s tough nowadays. So I have had to invent new ways to make sure I stay connected. I basically gave up texting to my wife because it’s so hard to really gauge how someone is doing without hearing the tone of their voice. I make videos for my kids, and try to keep them involved as much as I can. It’s one of the hardest things to do, but they know that me traveling is what ultimately pays the bills.
What is the most challenging part of having such a large follower base?
Honestly, just haters. Or people that don’t understand that I am a human being with strong opinions, and my feed is not necessarily supposed to be for everyone. I am not out there taking pretty pictures to gain followers, for me Instagram is probably the least important thing on my list. It’s a form of self-expression, and I guess the hardest part is just micromanaging that, making sure it doesn’t turn in to some weird regurgitated type of content and always has a part of my voice in it.
What opportunities has Instagram afforded you that you wouldn’t have had otherwise?
I would say that it is constantly getting me some of my biggest work. It’s really just another form of portfolio, and to be honest it’s probably a better one than your average website because it’s constantly being updated and people get a real-life sense of your art direction and curation. I would say it has helped get me some of my biggest jobs. I attribute a ton of success to that platform, from prints sales to books to social campaigns, and even massive commercial shoots. It has played a role in all of them.
You recently did a book based on your images, and also a TED talk. Can you tell us about those?
I have been pretty blessed in my career to have been able to work on a lot of long-term projects. For me, books have really been some of the most fulfilling things to work on. I have published five books and been a part of countless others. Making a book is almost a spiritual experience. To see images come to life, married with text and design, is something really special. One of my latest books, Distant Shores, chronicles about 10 years of surf travel all across the globe.
When it comes to TED, well, honestly, nothing about TED was mellow. I revised my talk 17 times, worked on it for three months, and knew about it for six. I have never poured more of myself into anything in my life. It consumed me and took me down to my very core to really find out what it was that made me tick. My one kernel of truth. But when I took that stage and delivered what might possibly be the most important nine-minute talk of my life, I know that every second of prep was worth it. I received a standing ovation. I was dumbfounded people were standing up. But in the end, I guess people felt inspired. And that was more than I could have ever hoped for.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your career gaining momentum and traveling the world so much?
I’ve learned that there is nothing in life worth pursuing that isn’t going to require us to suffer, just a little bit. See what I did there? I pulled that quote straight from my TED talk (laughs). Seriously though, all the best things I have ever been a part of have required me to give something of myself. I don’t care if it’s photographing something really special, or just being a good dad. I feel like the best teacher I have ever had has been nature. No doubt about that, but how do you translate that experience into words? Into photographs? That’s really what I am trying to figure out.
Any advice for people on how to make their Instagram pics look better?
Yes! Get stoked on the square format. Use the whole thing. It’s such small real estate we might as well use it all. Don’t use crappy filters, just edit with some good phone apps like Lightroom or Afterlight. I think one of the best things you can do is tell a story, or post images that mean something. What you write is almost as important as what you post. People want to know that you are a real human with real opinions, not just someone regurgitating that the mountains are calling and they must go. Instagram is the place for you to make your own quotes. I also suggest shooting early in the morning and later in the afternoon. Look for contrast, leading lines, rules of thirds, and things that make you feel.
What are some of your favorite accounts?
Too dang many to list, but here is what I am digging right now: