Photo Credit: Chris Burkard/Massif
Interview conducted by Sierra Bein
Depending who you ask, Chris Burkard is famed as a combination of adventure photographer, artist, speaker, director and more. But if you ask him, he doesn’t really have a preference of what you chose to call him. Burkard touched down in Toronto last week for the global tour of his new film Under An Arctic Sky. The two-year-long project is a glimpse into the experience of seeking out waves for cold-water surfing in Iceland, where the group endures constant darkness and the Country’s worst storm in 25 years. Burkard hosted an extra night because of the high demand for tickets, but sat down with us in between screenings to talk about the work that went into the film.
You’ve been doing cold-water adventures for a while. But what makes this particular project special to you?
I think that this film is the intersection of so many things. You dedicate almost your entire career to seeking out waves in cold water, not just waves but trying to pioneer new areas and new places. And I think in many ways this film was like a culmination of a decade of a love affair with those types of places. And in the end, what we got wasn’t anything really special to anyone except for there’s some sort of connection to what we experiences and I think what the public sees which feels really relatable. That pure stoke you could call it, that energy whatever of achieving something you never thought was possible is really humanizing in a way.
Even people in the room today have said they want to see the film because they want to experience this passion project that came to life.
That’s the beauty of it, when you’re able to approach people really honestly and just say this is something that I could have thrown online but I chose to be here to share it with you I think people really respect that, and that’s very valuable to me.
What was some of the reaction when you were there from locals, and when they found out you were there to surf?
It was funny because I realize that in cultures like this, everybody’s lost someone to the sea. So going out and just recreating in the ocean is actually a really scary thing for people. And the reaction with the kids, they’re pulling out their iPhone cameras and trying to take pictures of you. And if the adults know they want to feed you and take care of you, they don’t know what’s going on they want to make sure you’re ok and it’s a cool thing to see how the culture interacts with it because nobody’s upset, they’re just really blown away that this is how you experience it. And luckily Iceland does have a thriving surf culture, it’s new but it’s coming to life. So to witness that and watch has been cool and really overwhelming.
Preparing for this project, you say on your website that a lot can go into planning this… Like, years. But despite all the planning, there must have been some things that came up that you didn’t expect?
The biggest storm in 25 years was something we never planned for. The beauty of a project like this is you put yourself into a situation where you’re surrounded by who you care about, and love and you know they have your back and at some point you just need to hope that I hope everything goes right but I’m going to prepare like everything might go wrong. I think that we were in a mental head space where we were ready for things to go wrong and they did ultimately go wrong.
Were there any highlights or low points that you hadn’t expected on the trip?
To be honest, the editing process was excruciating. Because it look like a year and a half to make it after we shot it. It was crazy to go through all the storm and everything else but even more wild to have to cut out all these moments and figure out what the story is, what makes the most sense, what are you going to care about? We could have had a 40 minute surf segment that wouldn’t have done anything but we chose to really focus on the footage and the storytelling and the interviews that showed humanity and ideally made you care and connect with these characters.
We’re talking about how hard it was to get there and what you chose to show the audience, but what can’t the audience see in terms of logistics?
I think that all of the phone calls, all of the research, all the preplanning. That’s the stuff that the audience never gets to fully appreciate, which is why I’ve taken this film on the road to share with them a slide show. What I’ve tried to do with the slide show is take away those masks, those façades of who funded this project, and is this just a product of privilege or whatever. No this is a work trip that we planned and we put a lot on the line to do. Our reputations, everything. There’s so much that goes into the planning that you can never fully appreciate.
What was the process of picking your surfers?
Surfers are really chosen not based on so much that they’re the best guys in the entire world but we knew they could handle those conditions. We knew that they were people who would enjoy being there even if the surf wasn’t good. That’s the biggest most important thing to me. They had been primed and ready for that type of condition, and I worked them years and years prior on trips and trying to make sure that I trusted them. It wasn’t the first time I had gone out with any of those guys and I don’t think I ever would if it was a first trip somewhere.
How was the kick-starter process?
The point of the kick starter was that I was so eager to take this on a world tour, that I wanted from the beginning to show this to people and so that was where the money from the kick starter went to. We built it all around help us fund a world tour. We were actually one of the most successful short films on kick-starter ever. So that was really valuable and really rewarding.
Part of what makes all this possible are the wetsuits and advancing technologies with the suits. As wetsuit technology is getting better, do you think that the surf will grow too?
I think so for sure. I absolutely think that it’s going to get better and it has progressed massively. It’s provided opportunity for people to surf in places they never though was possible. Unless technology really advances, you’re going to be limited because what you need in a wetsuit is flexibility and mobility, and you don’t have that in certain dry suits. To be honest we’re at a point now that there isn’t water too cold to surf in. It’s just a matter of if you’re willing. You see guys in the lakes doing it all the time, they’re surfing fresh water it’s colder than any of the water we experience.
In the cold-water surf scene, over the amount of time that you’ve been in it, what changes have you seen or what changes do you hope to see?
I mean I guess my hope is that people will start looking outside of the places that they normally have. I’ve always dreamt of these remote off the beaten path places that were written off as too cold too remote and too dangerous to surf and now those places are accepted as surf spots. We base success of our travel on what others create. Like if you go somewhere you’re going to be bummed if you don’t get to that place or that photo you saw and that almost determines how successful your trip was. As humans we used to take our own path and go experience something new and I just feel like that’s what I hope that surf culture and culture in general will embrace.
Some people have found your work to almost spiritual in a way. Is that on purpose? Did you know you make people feel that way?
I hope so. I think the reality is that if you want people to feel something you have you feel something yourself. If you aren’t immersed in what you’re doing if you don’t have a story to tell then what’s the point of coming back with a photograph? I think what I realized was that for years I would just live and experience a place through my camera as a barrier because I was afraid to really be there. That’s a really hard lesson I had to learn and it’s something I’m still having to learn because I’m not great at just dealing with it. I hope that I always share my experiences through that lens and if it can be a tool to open somebody up to something new then like I said that’s all I care about.
What’s up with you and candy?
As you can tell, I’m not a candy person. Like. Ok. Let me rephrase that. I will totally go and binge-eat tons of candy. So my diet is mostly me eating some vegan meal or gummy bears. It’s one or the other. I’m just that type of extreme. Health is a really critical part of my life and I’ve always had those little vices when I travel in Scandinavian countries, like all the array of candies is overwhelming it’s so good. One day I posted that I love gummy bears and I literally started getting packs. I have like 100 pounds. Like 80 bags. Multiple pounds of bags. It’s dangerous I don’t know if people are trying to kill me.
Are there any other projects that you can tell us about that are in the coming future?
I’d love to share one. Over the last couple years, I’ve been really intrigued by conservation and what that really means and how I can help lend my voice to that kind of work. In the last couple years, I’ve invested a lot of time and energy into this organization called Halendid, it’s an organization to basically create a national park in the interior of the country. I’ve spent the majority of my time there, working on a personal project to photograph them in hopes that I could spread the word. So for me, that has been the greatest thing that I’ve been able to lend my voice to.
This interview has been shortened for length and clarity.