Photographer Chris Burkard Gets Real: The Toughest, Worst and Scariest Shoots In Memory

Words and photos by Chris Burkard

We asked photographer Chris Burkard to put together a list of extremes. From horrible infections to destroyed gear; customs scares and swimming in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle, Chris’ list runs the gamut of some of the most uncomfortable travel experiences we can imagine…

Hardest Approach To A Shoot

This is a funny one, because it was actually not that hard of an approach, but it was the circumstances that made it tough. I was in the Yosemite valley and had just finished three days of camping, climbing and photographing. I was about to leave and I got a call from Cory Rich that he needed someone to replace him on the Dawn Wall, which basically meant I had to drive home five hours and drive back 5 hours to get up on the Wall for sunrise.


I couldn’t turn it down. It was history in the making, and it was incredible to be a part of it all. We drove all night, went back to the office and loaded up gear: jumars, ropes, harnesses and everything we needed. We got back to the valley at 3am and started up the East Ledges, jugging and jumaring up the side of El Capitan. We hiked up to the topout of the nose with a massive amount of camera gear – our packs were tipping and leaning. It was so heavy. The best part was throwing a rope over the 3000+ ft ledge and just rapping off at sunrise – talk about instant exposure! The whole experience was brutal on the nerves and the body, and I can’t remember a time I was more tired and exhausted. In reality, however, it was nothing compared to the incredible feat of Tommy and Kevin climbing that route…even if it was still our own mini-epic.

Most Uncomfortable Conditions To Shoot In

Norway, 2012. I was swimming around just inside the Arctic Circle taking pictures of surfers. The air was -10 and the water was just above freezing. I could feel the blood rushing to protect my vital organs as I lost feeling in my toes and feet. I had underestimated the wind chill and how cold I felt in the water. My face was beet red, my lips swollen and my eyes sunken in. Since I had to use lightweight gloves to operate my camera, I started to get frostbite in my fingers. I kept having pep talks with myself so I would stay out in the water longer. The waves were pumping and I had traveled so far to get there…I knew i had to tough it out.

Eventually my friends had to pull me out of the water. It may have been delirium setting in, but my friends said I had a smile on my face the entire time.

The Most Gear I Have Ever Damaged For A Shot

I was in a super-remote part of southern Chile back in 2009, in a town called Lebu. We sought out this kind of mythical wave that sits below a fisherman graveyard. The surf was epic but were struggling to find a fisherman to take us out on the boat in the morning. We finally found one, but the morning we met up, he seemed totally hammered drunk – I doubt he even slept the night before. We went with him anyway. At one point, we had the nose of the boat pointed toward the surf with no way to turn it around. A massive set came in and were caught in the worst possible spot we could have been. We took a wave on the bow and it felt like we were being showered at Sea World by Shamu – a massive wave on top of me. I had about $30,000 worth of gear with me and SO much stuff got drenched by salt water – the worst kind of wetness.


I dried out what I could, but I lost about $22,000 worth of gear, including two camera bodies, three lenses and a 400mm telephoto lens.

Biggest Lesson Learned

Man…so many lessons learned.

I would say the biggest lesson for me has been learning how to really take in the experiences I have on the road. For so long, I was totally focused on my assignments and didn’t have time to absorb what was happening around me. I got into this type of work to be a storyteller and I realized that while I was getting epic images, I had no stories because I had spent too much time behind the camera. I started to realize it was equally important for me to connect with my subjects and landscapes. This could be as simple as taking a dip in the river or spending time to speak to a local for a few minutes before I snapped his photo. I feel like the world needs more face to face time…not just Facetime.


Most Skunked

I have been skunked a lot in my life, but probably the worst was in the Dominican Republic on a surf trip. I think it was the hype the made the whole experience sting so bad. There was a massive storm coming and we thought the surf was going to be all time. Eventually, the storms came and went but all we could find was sloppy onshore waves…it really sucked. We didn’t know the area very well so we kinda just kept looking for good waves. We kept hoping the storm was going to turn itself around and give us some good conditions, the but whole time it was way too close to land.

As were leaving on the very last day, we took a different route back to the airport and we drove right by a small beach break – perfect head high waves were peeling in. We were all flabbergasted, shocked, and totally pissed off. We realized there had been good waves the whole time right under our noses and we had just missed them. The whole way back we were just muttering to ourselves….I guess you win some and you lose some.


Worst Customs Experience

I traveled to Cuba a couple of years ago, back before it was legal for Americans to go there. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to bring walkie talkies along. I was already tense when I landed at the airport from just being in Cuba illegally and I needed to get my passport stamped. I got called into a back room and was interrogated for about 4 hours – I had no idea why or what for – but I was sweating bullets. I knew it was a felony (at the time) if i was reported for being an American in Cuba.

The Cuban officials told me later that they had found the walkie talkies and that they were absolutely not allowed in the country. They then said they would be monitoring my stay in the country. It was the biggest relief I think I have ever had to get out of that interrogation room.



Scariest Moment On The Road

I spend a night in jail on my first trip to Russia in 2009. I was so fresh and new to traveling that I felt invincible, and this was for sure the scariest moment I have had on the road to date.

We decided to search for waves along the Vladivostok coast, a remote part of Eastern Russia. We landed and made our way to customs and every single member of our crew went through without a hitch. I got held up because my visa had the wrong entry date – it said I was 2 days early – even though we all sent our paperwork together. I was interrogated with an interpreter for over 6 hours and was then told I had to spend a night in jail before being deported to Korea. I was in jail for 24 hours and then was, sure enough, deported back to Korea before I could come back in the country a day later.


The entire time I was on the phone with US embassy trying to get out of the situation with no food and no water. I had a lot of time to reflect on my life and the entire experience definitely made me grateful for my comfortable life in North America.

Worst Injury On The Road

I have been lucky over the years and I haven’t had any major injuries so far (knock on wood), but I did contract a staph infection one time from a trip to Tahiti. I was swimming around for a week, shooting photos and video for a project, and had a reef cut that never got cleaned out enough. It turned from a tiny ingrown hair looking thing into a full-on abscess. By the time I returned home, I had developed red streaks that ran up and down my leg. I was stuck in bed for about a month. The infection turned into MRSA (which is methicillin-resistant staph) and I had to make a couple emergency room visits. There was even talk about having to remove my leg so the infection couldn’t enter my vascular system, which freaked me out.


I will spare you the details, but it was a scary, scary experience and I still have the scars to prove it.

Worst Food Ever

I traveled to the Middle East through Dubai, Oman and Yemen. It was one of my first international trips. I was so eager to see this part of the world and I planned to not hold anything back. I was going to eat everything, try anything and take it all in. I decided to try some camel’s milk – it looked good at the time. To my surprise, however, my decision to drink the milk quickly resulted in absolutely uncontrollable puking and an upset stomach for days. Never drink camels milk. It is disgusting.


I have had similar experiences in Nicaragua, Mexico, Norway and other places with food. For some reason, bad food just follows me. Consuming it mostly results in terrible diarrhea for periods of time. On one trip in Mexico, I couldn’t make it to the bathroom and had to drop my drawers on the beach right into the sand. I had tons of people just watching me but there was nothing I could do. When you gotta, go you gotta go…

Chris Burkard is a self-taught photographer and artist, based in Central Coast California, whose work is layered by surf, outdoor, lifestyle and travel subjects. Burkard’s images are punctuated by energized landscapes and moments of bliss, by adventure seeking and the lifestyle that ensues, by movement and intuitive light-working capabilities. With the ocean as his main muse, Burkard has consistently captured this subject in timeless and expansive photographic impressions, utilizing the tool of surfing to approach the ocean’s intricate personality and then extending out to include the human personalities that draw meaning from this same source.

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