How Iceland Revived This Surf Photographer’s Sense of Adventure
In his new book ‘Wayward: Stories and Photographs,’ Chris Burkard takes readers behind the camera on his quest for meaningful experiences
Before he landed in Reykjavík for the first time, in 2008, Chris Burkard was fulfilling what he thought was his dream: making it as a surf photographer. He was racking up stamps in his passport and collecting a steady paycheck traveling the world on magazine assignments. But two years into his career, he felt that his creativity was being wasted. “I was selling this sense of adventure, but I was going to places where there would be a high-rise hotel and fine dining,” Burkard, now 35, told Outside recently from his home in Pismo Beach, California. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had to go find it.”
He found it when he stepped off the plane in Iceland and a salty gust of wind smacked him in the face. “There’s something different about the wind in Iceland,” he says. He remembers driving away from the airport and being in awe. “There were lava fields as far as the eye can see, distant volcanoes peeking up out of the clouds.” He spent two weeks shooting there.
“I knew inside, I was like, ‘This is what I want,’ and I kept searching for that,” Burkard says. “Iceland sent me on a quest, to seek out more of those places so that I could create images and tell stories that were more meaningful.”
Burkard talks more about his career’s wandering path in Wayward: Stories and Photographs ($35), a collection of striking images and personal insights from his travels between 2006 and 2016. In the photo book, Burkard charts out his journey to becoming one of the most well-known adventure photographers in the world.
Burkard has now visited Iceland 53 times, but that first trip in 2008 is still vivid in his mind. He was on an assignment for Men’s Journal to photograph American filmmaker and surfer Timmy Turner, who had recently pivoted to cold-water surfing following a nearly fatal staph infection. Along with surfers Josh Mulcoy and Sam Hammer, Burkard and Turner drove through gnarly mountain passes in search of unridden swell.
The Arctic is “a different playing field,” Burkard says, a place with whiteout conditions and walloping winds from all sides, where you can’t just hop out of your car and snap a photo. Behind every photograph he takes there’s a story about getting caught in a hailstorm or suffering frostbite. Documenting Iceland, he says, “requires something greater than just clicking the shutter.”
“You’re going to places that you had only seen on Google Earth, like a tiny speck of whitewater from an aerial satellite photo. And you’re like, ‘That could be a wave,’” he says.
One day, the men drove out on a long sandy peninsula in the freezing cold, and “got incredible surf, like the kind of surf that you dream about in California for a year,” Burkard says. He remembers sitting around a campfire at the beach afterward, thinking that if this was the best life had to offer him, he was OK with that. Then the northern lights lit up the sky. “Like that show of beauty was there just for me in some way,” Burkard says.
As he writes in Wayward, a part of him woke up in Iceland that he didn’t realize was sleeping. The land of fire and ice, he says, “opened [his] eyes to what else was out there,” making places like the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia and the Faroe Islands suddenly feel attainable. “It was like a gateway drug for these deeper, more immersive experiences,” Burkard says.
Below is a series of photos from Wayward that Burkard took in Iceland over the years:
Timmy Turner, Sam Hammer, and Josh Mulcoy stand around a campfire in Iceland in 2008.
Josh Mulcoy and Sam Hammer walk on an Icelandic glacier en route to some waves in 2008.
Sam Hammer preps for a cold surf in Iceland in 2008.
Keith Malloy navigates through glacial ice chunks off the coast of Iceland in 2010.
After searching for swell on top of the Aurora, Justin Quintal takes a quick plunge in the Westfjords of Iceland in 2017.
Sam Hammer enjoys a cold one after a long day of surfing in 2016.
Sam Hammer creeps into the green room off a fjord in Iceland in 2017.
The aurora borealis illuminates the Icelandic sky in 2017.