INAKA: The Chris Burkard Interview
Chris Burkard grew up shooting surfing in California, and his photographs have always been influenced by the ocean. Last winter he linked up with Billabong riders Wolle Nyvelt, Bode Merrill and Garrett ‘Worm’ Warnick to shoot in Iwanai, Japan. They got hammered by the weather, but still managed to find their windows. Read on for some insights into a surf photographer’s perspective on snow.
Extracted from Methodmag issue 21.2
Interview: Theo Acworth
Photos: Chris Burkard.
Hi Chris, you’re more of a surf and travel photographer than a snow shooter. How did you get roped into this trip?
Well, it’s sort of the other way around actually. I’ve been travelling to Japan for the last 4 years, and I sort of fell in love. I’ve been to Japan many times for surfing and other projects, and I got tuned in to this community in Iwanai. It’s always a sense of place that draws me somewhere. Sitting somewhat in the shadow of the mega-resorts down the road, both figuratively and literally, sits this little podunk town right on the edge of the ocean, so this was sort of a wild experience to go and bring a talented crew there. I wanted to put this terrain into the hands of some people who could really appreciate it. And in addition to what it offers with snow, it has the potential for incredible waves too. So I had this idea in the back of my mind that you could both surf and snowboard in the same day, and I think that was the impetus of the trip, and that’s what I sort of pitched to Billabong.
I guess there aren’t too many spots in the world where you can do that, let alone within sight of each other. I’ve been there before, and everything in the town was so weatherbeaten. We sort of felt like we were at the edge of the world, just looking out over a black ocean.
Yeah, it’s a wild scenario. When storms move in, you sort of feel like you’re seeing them from the edge of the earth. It’s the first place they hit after coming overland from Russia and Sakhalin Island
- Bode Merrill snorkelling.
Something I find pretty interesting is the comparison between surf and snow. They’re similar, but in the ocean, everything is moving except you, whereas in the mountains you’re the one that’s moving, while everything else is (ideally) still. You shoot more surf than snow, and I was wondering if there were any significant differences or challenges for you in terms of shooting these images?
When it comes to challenges, the only big one in Japan is the weather. It can be a blessing and a curse. Sometimes there’s just no sun, so when you do get it, you’ve got to be on it. You get free refills of snow every night but with that come dark and gloomy conditions, which can really suck. So that was the biggest challenge. The days we did have sun we tried to push it as hard as we could. The deep and dry powder is also hard to move through, to move 50 feet will take you longer than you’d ever considered it could. So it’s brutal in that regard, but the terrain isn’t so steep and is forgiving and playful, so you don’t feel as threatened as you might on big mountains. It’s an amazing playground.
One thing I try and do a lot with action sports is to try and work with the most creative people I can because I put a lot of trust in their hands to figure out what the best perspective and angle is. I never want to bring my ego to the table, and I was always wanting to know from Worm or Wolle about where the apex is, what’s gonna look best. Just trying to work with them, I love it when it’s more collaborative. And I think by doing that you foster a way better relationship and I immediately felt that there was a great relationship there, and I learned so much in the experience. I wanted to work with guys of this calibre to understand what their creative process was like. It was so rad to experience. Each person has their own definitive personality that comes through the way that they ride. And I try to create an environment where if I suggest something kooky they can tell me. I love that.
Sounds like a nice vibe. I’m a big fan of shooting in stormy and snowy conditions, as long as I’m in the trees.
I totally relate. I look for the feature sets that give you a good sense of relationship with the landscape. The trees in Japan specifically, they’re so unique and special.
There’s one shot of Wolle airing off the tree on his Äsmo that was one of my favourites from your selection.
I think the guys were thrown off by me always asking them ‘Hey can you do this, can you do that?’ Just because I didn’t know what was possible, and sometimes that sparks new ideas. Things that you might think were ridiculous under normal circumstances actually end up being really fun. It was like going into something, not knowing a lot about it. I think that’s a lot of what photography is, we get so tuned into our professional status or the way we operate that we can lose a sense of creativity, and this trip was all about creativity for me.
I’ve read that you put a lot of emphasis on the single image and want your images to tell a story or inspire a sense of adventure, and I was wondering if there was one shot in particular that you really liked?
Absolutely. There’s one of Wolle on a sunny day. Half the team went to this pillow zone we’d scouted while Wolle and I stayed on the mountain and explored these transitions and hips. It was a clear day and I had this shot in my head immediately. I wanted to show the proximity of this mountain to the ocean. It’s very rare to be that close. You’re around 4 miles or less from the water’s edge, it’s crazy. So coming from that traditional surf style I’ve always loved hitting a big lip that’s like a natural feature and throwing a big spray and making it look like you’re doing a turn on a surfboard. And that’s exactly what he did, there’s this pulled back shot where you have this big beautiful fan of snow that’s contrasting against the water, and that’s my favourite photo of the trip, and also Billabong’s. There’s just a sense of freedom and uniqueness that you feel in Japan, and in my eyes, it’s all captured in this shot. When people see images of these places, and they want to go there or find out more about it, I think that’s the biggest compliment that you can give a place. So if someone asked me what Iwani was like, I would show them that one photo.
When your shots first came through, I checked them on my phone, and even from a tiny thumbnail I could tell straight away that was a classic one. It just makes you want to be there.
Even if you’re a park rider, I think anyone who wants to be on the mountain can appreciate that. There’s a sense of fun there. No one is going to trigger a slide or break their neck. Wolle specifically seems to move in such rhythm with the landscape around him. I really appreciated how he rides, it’s incredible. It gets me fired up to watch and to witness. The one thing I love about shooting snow-based stuff is that for the most part, you’re on snow and on mountain, experiencing it with the riders. I’m not really the guy who wants to be right up in someone’s face with a fisheye, but I do love the fact that I can explore this terrain with them. It’s just fun just to go and explore. I think that’s the thing that draws me in and keeps me excited and entertained. I’ve been to Iwanai before so I had a bit of an understanding about what I was getting myself into, but it still provides a sense of exploration that I feel like I’m missing when shooting surfing. I’m not sure how you want to put this, but in some ways, the barrier of entry for shooting surfing is so low, because people don’t really need to bring a lot of skills to the table. You can just stand on the beach with a tripod. In this sort of terrain, you need to have an understanding of snow and know how to use your gear, and you need to know the rider you’re shooting and what they’re doing. These things demand your attention, and this is one of the reasons I love working in the snow. I think I’ve got slightly fed up with some aspects of surfing that feel so lackadaisical, it doesn’t challenge you or bring your greatest focus into view. Sorry, that’s a bit of a rant, but this is a bit of an ode to snowsports professionals, which is a bit of a lame way of putting it, but they just have this connection to the landscape which I think is really cool.
It’s very interesting to hear your perspective on this. I guess we take it for granted that rider and shooter are usually in pretty close proximity, and that the session runs together. Did you get the chance to try Wolle’s Äsmo?
I didn’t, sadly. I just get so stoked and psyched on shooting and documenting.
You’re still definitely participating in the session when you’re behind the camera.
To be honest as the photographer, you’re the first one going down, so you get your moment of glory, and that’s really special to me and a unique situation.
You said earlier that you learnt a lot from the riders, do you think they learnt anything from you?
How to be patient! From them, I learnt how to look at a feature and see what’s possible on a snowboard. Snowboarders are some of the most creative people out there, and what they can do in certain terrain is so unique. Maybe I taught them how to appreciate a surf perspective within these environments. I was always looking for hips and transitions and things that related to waves. We all carried that theme to the beach when we went to surf, and it became a way to connect. Our lingo wasn’t totally dialled in, it’s like we spoke slightly different languages, like Spanish and Portuguese, but our shared passion for surfing was a way for us to connect.
So to close things out, I have to ask you what the deal was with that octopus?
Oh my god, yes, the octopus. Our hosts wanted to show us everything and make sure we had a good time. On the last day, they wanted to take us out for this traditional dinner, and on day 4 or 5 of raw fish, you’re pretty burnt out. And they took us to this restaurant in a back alley and all of a sudden they’re busting out this live octopus that they then cut up in front of us, which was pretty hardcore. We were like ‘No, please don’t do this on our accord’. I think two or three of the crew became vegetarians after that. But those are the uncomfortable situations you thrust yourself into in order to experience a place. They don’t always make a lot of sense, and they’re not always the easiest to stomach, but I think you leave with a deeper appreciation for the people and their willingness to share their lives with you. They wanted to give us an inside look into how our food was made. I think there’s an appreciation that can be given for a culture like that, that’s so close to their cycle of food and what they eat, and that’s really unique for me.