This column, Escape Artist, is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, online entrepreneurs and lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
Chris Burkard runs Chris Burkard Studio, an adventure photography site that focuses on surf, outdoor, lifestyle and travel topics. Based in California, Burkard travels to capture stark and vibrant images of the environment. In 2016, he hit 2 million followers on Instagram.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be popular now. What are your impressions?
Chris Burkard It’s cool to see people pursuing careers that they are passionate about. Similarly, when I was 19, I decided to quit my job and pursue photography full-time. I knew I had to do it to be happy. I honestly had no idea how it would turn out. I believe whatever job you decide to pursue, if you’re passionate about it, will eventually lead to a career in that field.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked ongoing travel—and iconic photography—for you?
CB I can’t say there was one moment that really sparked my decision. It was more of a progression of growing up loving art and slowly finding the medium of the camera and taking photographs. Throughout high school, photography was a perfect outlet to document my travels and adventures with friends. For me, travels were always small and local, yet I wished for the opportunity to see the world.
What inspired you to start a self-titled brand and develop your adventure/landscape niche?
CB The niche came from working with big name brands and traveling to new locations, which continues to push me toward the next crazy adventure. My main interest is going to places that are untouched and new to the public eye. I love taking photos of the subject in a raw, natural environment and sharing the experience on my social channels. Doing this consistently with trial and error got me to where I am today. It’s helped me develop who I am and what I stand for. My brand is nothing more than a tool to inspire—I want to get people outside because that’s where I want to be.
How did you first build a following online, and how have you continued to develop your brand across platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat?
CB I got into Instagram during a trip to Iceland about three years ago. Some surfers I was with told me I should make an account so I could share my photos. I started posting random moments from the road but quickly realized that it could be much more than that. I decided to use it as a way to inspire people and invite them along on my trips. I’m always looking for new ways to share my adventures through any platform.
As an entrepreneur, how do you balance client work, personal work and speaking gigs while you travel?
CB It’s definitely a challenge. Trying to fit all three into my schedule is enough to drive you crazy. It takes major planning. I have a big master calendar that I use to keep track of everything, and someone back at the studio constantly updates it while I’m in the field shooting. More than that, though, it’s challenging to decide what jobs to take. I want to say “yes” to everything, but I have realized that you create more value by what you turn down.
Do you have a favorite travel spot you’d like to share with Paste readers?
CB I truly believe that Iceland is one of the most beautiful locations in the world. I go there a couple of times a year and am always blown away by what it has to offer each time. For me, traveling is as much about what you give as what you get from it. I try to go to places that I feel I can give a piece of myself to, whether it’s promoting something that needs saving or a place that could use more visitors.
The “dream job” and “travel photography” mentality is also becoming more popular. Does the market seem saturated, and how do you stay connected with your followers?
CB Social media outlets have definitely opened up a lot of doors for a lot of people. It’s cool to see how much natural talent is out there. The best way to stay connected with my followers while on the road is to consistently post on the platforms I currently have. Instagram has always been a great way for me to share my photos and get instant feedback from my followers. Also, Snapchat helps my followers to see the behind-the-scenes view while I’m out in the field. I want travel to feel accessible for people.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
CB Identify your style of photography and shoot to perfect that look. Editors and art directors want creative people who are the best in their niche, not those who are OK at everything. Find what you are truly passionate about and give it everything you have. The sooner you discover your own voice, the clearer it is to say what you want.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance journalist based in Georgia. She writes about travel, health and business for regional and national publications.