March 5th, 2018

In Favor of the Difficult Path: Chris Burkard's Journey to Becoming a Travel Photographer

In Favor of the Difficult Path: Chris Burkard's Journey to Becoming a Travel Photographer

Chris Burkard on how he decided to put it all on the line and follow his dreams.

Whatever I was looking for, I wasn’t going to find it here.

I stared from behind the desk of my dismal magazine store job in Pismo Beach. It was pretty lonely in here—not many customers ever came through during the winter months. But somehow, despite the minimum wage employment that I so desperately needed, I had convinced myself that—as a 19-year-old budding photographer—this would somehow be a good side job for me while I was in school. At the time it seemed logical to me that surrounding myself with magazine pictures of places I wanted to go would somehow get me closer to being there. It didn’t take me long to realize how wrong I had been. I had severe wanderlust, and sitting here looking at travel photos was only making it worse.  

Day after day, I sat behind the desk eating licorice & Mexican popsicles while flipping through the glossy pages of National Geographic, Life, Outside, and Surfer. I spent a majority of my day dreaming about the far-flung destinations I saw in these magazines. To add insult to injury, the store was in downtown Pismo Beach, which was my local surf spot, and when the waves were big, I could see them crashing along the pier from the counter.

In my mind, my future was already decided—I was going to be a surf photographer. I was going to travel the world and see what was outside this small town I grew up in. I would photograph the best waves on the planet and explore wild and remote landscapes while living out of my backpack. Well, it sounded cool at least, but there was just one problem: I didn’t own a passport and, besides a bodysurfing trip to Mexico after high school, I’d never even left the country. I was the least likely candidate to ever see the world, let alone do it for a career.

I had been attending a local junior college that was mostly just a ploy to use the financial aid to buy camera gear and pay for film and processing fees. Despite my parents’ dreams of me being the first family member to go to college, I was secretly skipping school to shoot photos, while keeping my attendance at the bare minimum to earn my financial aid. I probably made up for it in the photo darkroom after hours.

I guess there always seemed to be a greater calling in my mind. I couldn’t be bothered with psychology, math or biology. In class, I questioned just what the heck I was doing there. The idea that I would go to college just to fulfill someone else’s dreams, as I had watched many friends do, just didn’t sit right with me.  

On a bleak windy day, after my first customer came into the shop around noon, I realized I was slowly going crazy in the magazine shop. I decided then and there that that only way I was actually going to get anywhere in photography was if I gave it all my time and effort. I couldn’t rely on the crutches of a side job, parents, financial aid, or even the idea that there may be another option. I had to cut the ship loose from the safe harbor. I told myself that I was going to quit my job, quit school (after my next financial aid check came in), and devote myself to photography for the next five years.

I had dreams of wielding my camera on white sand beaches and unexplored coastlines, but the truth is, I would have shot senior pictures and dog portraits if it put food in my mouth and gas in the tank. I didn’t care. I just wanted to be creative for a living— I wanted to be inspired in what i was doing. I needed this like I needed air, food, or water. In time I realized just how true that statement would become. I often ended up living off 50 cent burritos in my car for weeks on end.  It was never glamorous. And, in the moment, there wasn’t really an end in sight.

I had given up the college experience—given up friends, home-cooked meals, and a stable income for something that felt like a brighter future. In the moment, I was the only person who saw the light. It was my own kind of beautiful, my unknown. I never looked back.

And as I sit here a decade later, on a plane flying back from a photography trip to Japan and New Zealand, I get a little misty eyed about the whole journey that led me here. I have given up a lot for this career. There have been moments that have been incredibly lonely—solo soldier-like trudges into new territory. Moments lined with injuries and uncertainty and forays into near poverty. But then there are moments that fill me with so much joy and beauty that I can barely envision a camera relaying the experience.

People have asked me often if I would change anything about my career. Would I have done it differently? I wouldn’t know where to start.

There are things I could have done to make my life easier along the way, but that should never be the goal. It’s not about how easy or hard something is, it’s about how much you learn from it. I tried to choose the path of greatest learning, the one that would truly open my eyes to who I am as a person and what I am truly capable of. The path of the unknown.

Esquire News magazine shop is still located in downtown Pismo Beach right off Highway 1. They still sell amazing Mexican paletas and have an excellent selection of all the best magazines you can find. I, however, am no longer an employee, but will always be a customer.

Whatever path you choose to take, go forth and Find Your Unknown.

Related Links (from Eagle Creek blog):

Inspiring Traveler Tales From Around the World

Under an Arctic Sky - Chris Burkard’s Biggest Lesson Learned

How to Make Travel a Resume Booster

by Chris Burkard

Chris Burkard is an accomplished explorer, photographer, creative director, speaker, and author. Traveling throughout the year to pursue the farthest expanses of Earth, Burkard works to capture stories that inspire humans to consider their relationship with nature, while promoting the preservation of wild places everywhere.