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How Iceland Reignited This Surf Photographer’s Sense of Adventure

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Before landing in Reykjavík for the first time in 2008, Chris Burcard was realizing what he thought was his dream: to become a surf photographer. He accumulated stamps in his passport and earned a steady salary traveling the world on magazine assignments. But two years into his career, he felt his creativity was wasted. “I was selling that sense of adventure, but I was going to places where there would be a high-rise hotel and fine dining,” said Burkard, now 35. Out recently from his home in Pismo Beach, Calif. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. I had to go get him.

He found it when he got off the plane in Iceland and a gust of salty wind hit him in the face. “There’s something different about the wind in Iceland,” he says. He remembers driving out of the airport and being impressed. “There were lava fields as far as the eye could see, distant volcanoes emerging from the clouds.” He spent two weeks filming there.

“I knew inside, I was like, ‘This is what I want,’ and I kept looking for that,” Burkard says. “Iceland sent me on a quest, to research more of these places so I could create more meaningful images and stories.”

Burkard reflects on the wandering journey of his career in Wayward: Stories and Photographs ($35), a collection of striking images and personal insights from his travels between 2006 and 2016. In the photobook, Burkard traces his journey to becoming one of the best known adventure photographers around the world.

Burkard has now visited Iceland 53 times, but that first trip in 2008 is still fresh in his mind. He was on a mission to men’s diary to photograph American filmmaker and surfer Timmy Turner, who had recently turned to cold water surfing following a near-fatal staphylococcal infection. Along with surfers Josh Mulcoy and Sam Hammer, Burkard and Turner traversed gnarly mountain passes in search of an out-of-control swell.

The Arctic is “a different playground,” says Burkard, a place with whiteout conditions and high winds on all sides, where you can’t just jump out of your car and take a picture. Behind every photo he takes is a story of being caught in a hailstorm or suffering from frostbite. Documenting Iceland, he says, “requires something more than just clicking the shutter.”

“You go to places you’ve only seen on Google Earth, like a tiny spot of white water from an aerial satellite photo. And you’re like, ‘It could be a wave,'” he says.

One day the men rode a long sandy peninsula in freezing cold and “had amazing surf, like the kind of surf you dream of in California for a year,” Burkard says. He remembers then sitting around a campfire at the beach, thinking that if this was the best life for him, he was okay with it. Then the Northern Lights lit up the sky. “Like this beauty show was there just for me in a way,” Burkard says.

As he writes in Rebel, part of him woke up in Iceland not realizing she was sleeping. The land of fire and ice, he says, “has opened up [his] eyes on what else was out there,” making places like Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the Faroe Islands suddenly feel accessible. “It was like a gateway drug to those deeper, more immersive experiences,” Burkard says.

Below is a series of photos from Rebel that Burkard has taken to Iceland over the years:

(Chris Burcard)

Timmy Turner, Sam Hammer and Josh Mulcoy around a campfire in Iceland in 2008.

Josh Mulcoy and Sam Hammer walk on an Icelandic glacier on their way to waves in 2008.

(Chris Burcard)

Josh Mulcoy and Sam Hammer walk on an Icelandic glacier on their way to waves in 2008.

Sam Hammer prepares for a cold surf in Iceland in 2008.

(Chris Burcard)

Sam Hammer prepares for a cold surf in Iceland in 2008.

Keith Malloy navigates through chunks of glacial ice off the coast of Iceland in 2010.

(Chris Burcard)

Keith Malloy navigates through chunks of glacial ice off the coast of Iceland in 2010.

After chasing the swell atop the Aurora, Justin Quintal plunges quickly into the Westfjords of Iceland in 2017.

(Chris Burcard)

After looking for the swell at the top of the DawnJustin Quintal takes a quick dive in the Westfjords of Iceland in 2017.

Sam Hammer is enjoying a cold after a long day of surfing in 2016.

(Chris Burcard)

Sam Hammer is enjoying a cold after a long day of surfing in 2016.

Sam Hammer slips into the green room off a fjord in Iceland in 2017.

(Chris Burcard)

Sam Hammer slips into the green room off a fjord in Iceland in 2017.

An aurora borealis lights up the Icelandic sky in 2017.

(Chris Burcard)

The Northern Lights light up the Icelandic skies in 2017.