The Personal Project: The Photographer's Guide to Sticking to Your Mission Statement
So the personal project it's such a weird, complicated word, because I guess the reality is that any project that you're doing, could be a personal project. I would say the one moment that it's really not a personal project is when somebody is coming to you and the idea is completely their own and really you're just there to fulfill that job or that assignment or whatever that is. And that's a very normal thing. There's a lot of jobs that I do that you aren't gonna see on social media. There's a lot of jobs that I'm gonna do that not to be conflicting with what I said before, but they maybe don't fit perfectly aligned in your mission statement, because those are the jobs that sometimes you're doing just to make money, you're just doing it to get by, and that's totally fine. I think the key thing is that what you're putting out into the world is what you're gonna bring back. And so that's where I think when it comes to personal projects, when it comes to projects, you're really invested...
in, you want them to fit within that mission statement. You want them to fit within that personal regime of what you're hoping to say to the world, and really something that shares your vision. Now, I wanna share this kind of quick story here, because I think that in many ways, one of the greatest examples that I can offer in terms of how I started to evolve from shooting editorial work, which was really the byproduct of me going out, doing internships with the magazine, like cold emailing people, and trying to get kind of this contact of somebody that would work there and then begging them for an internship. And as I talked about in the beginning, driving down to Oceanside every Monday morning, six hour drive, living in my car, down the Oceanside, basically just giving everything I had to the magazine, and understanding how that worked. The way I transitioned from working for the magazines to doing commercial work was really through one singular project. And I guess if there's a way to say, "Hey, there's this one moment that sort of changed my life," it would be this one. But the problem is it wasn't overnight, it wasn't even a moment, it was years and years. Actually the process of publishing my first book, the "California Surf Project" took three years. We started in 2006 and we finished in 2009. So it was glacial, and that's how progress is made, it's glacial. And I just have to caveat this entire workshop to say that if you're looking for some quick, fast change and career swap, or what have you, I don't think that I'm gonna be able to offer that. I don't know how effective this process will be for you. And I think that in reality, everything that's good takes time and takes some sacrifice. And the one thing I would say is that the quicker you're able to recognize that those sacrifices will pay off the sooner you'll be willing to make them. And that was hard. I was so reluctant to that in the beginning of my career, but now I look forward to them, I revel in them. And this is really where the personal project comes to life. Now, quick story time here before I dive into it. The personal project for me that really started everything was my book, "The California Surf Project." I had received this grant money, small grant money from a foundation that was advocating for the best upcoming surf photographer, and I used all that money to do a book. It was actually part of my proposal for that grant. And so I set off on a 50 day journey to document California's coast from the top to the bottom. And "The California Surf Project" was born. It was a love letter to California, it was my ode, my testament to this place I cared about. And ultimately, as I've said many times before, we came finally after 50 days, we had 80,000 images, and I brought it to this editor and I showed her and she was like, "Okay, this is something." And it was through a friend that introduced me to her. And that project, what it did for me long term was really where the benefits. There was sort of a twofold thing. First thing, being what I experienced on the road. I've written articles about this, I've made films about this. I've talked about the importance of this road trip concept in your work, many times. Now, granted, I know some of us are not in a situation where you can take off for 50 days and go out and shoot and go find yourself, so to say. But there is a common theme with a lot of photographers. Again, myself, Jimmy chin, I know Tim Kemple, Lesinski and even Ansel Adams, I was able to look into this and study this for an article that I wrote for red bulletin, where it was a road trip that spurred a lot of our first and early experiences. Why is that? What is it about the road trip? It's the fact that we were living and breathing with the camera. Every day we'd wake up, the first thing you do is take a picture. Every night when you go to bed, the last thing you do is take a picture. What does that mean? It means that the camera didn't just become some sort of thing we'd pick up randomly on a Monday night and a Friday evening and when our friends are over, we lived and breathe with it. And I think the more you're able to do that, the more you connect closely to what it can do for you. You start to break through some of the technical barriers so that you can really push forward with the creativity. And that's what happens. You pick it up and you just feel absolutely connected to what you're doing. You feel absolutely like every finger, every button, every extremity is a part of this creative process. And that's really what happens when you use your camera every day, all day long. So whatever you need to do to foster that will hopefully bring you closer to that goal, that hope that you are living in kind of a symbiotic relationship with the camera. That would say if anything that helped to boost my career and push me towards another space. Now, what else did that do? What else did the road trip do? It forced me to think about something very different. For the first time in my life, I was shooting for someone other than the editors of the magazines. If you have a chance to look at the style of surf magazines in the early 2000s, really it's a focus on kind of front light, logos, logo driven, advertising driven images, 'cause that's what drives editorial, that's what drives the magazines, the advertisers, not the readers, it's those who are paying to get that thing printed. Now that's awesome, and I had a lot of creative freedom there, but the reality is that when you're making images for a book and all of a sudden you're making images for some new audience. This is the viewer, the reader, the subscriber, the person who kayaked the California coast, the person who climbed up and down the coast in the early nineties or eighties or seventies or whatever, and you wanna create something that relates to them. Well, what are you looking for? You're looking for photographs that they could see themselves in. You're looking for photographs of these deep, beautiful landscapes, and figures that might in some way resonate with who they are. This forced me to look at the landscape of what I was shooting, and really the style in which I was shooting much differently. That being said, I really focused on silhouettes. I focused on timeless images that I knew couldn't be dated by a certain period of time, certain year. What does that mean? Really, coming down to the technical aspect of it meant black wet suits, no logos, nothing bright, nothing that would distract your eye from the beauty of the place. Okay, why? Ultimately I'm making a book, it's not a magazine. It's not there for 30 days, it's there for 30 years, hopefully, and that's why our book is still in print 10 years to the day, which is awesome. It's sold through multiple thousands of copies and it's still successful, because it's still relevant. I learned about this idea of shooting work that was meant to be around hopefully a lot longer than me, during that trip. I learned the importance and the value of what Ansel Adam said when he spoke eloquently about the idea of being passionate, about creating images, that in some way encapsulated an experience or a time. And really this is where those things dawned on me, and this is where I'd say my style was born. Now, what am I talking about? Okay, so I created this book and ultimately that book got published. And then what happened slowly but surely was when that book went out to the world and went everywhere because it was published and sold in Barnes & Noble and Urban Outfitters and all these places that I never envisioned a book of mine being granted, because I worked with a larger publisher. I didn't make great if any money, but that wasn't the point. Again, when we talk about books, I talk about working backwards and establishing your goals there. It was to get that work out there. And when that work got out there, it started to change things in my career. It started to get onto the shelves of wineries and started to go into restaurants and started to go into little boutique sellers. And people would pick up this book and they'd be like, "I want that print for my house." And people would be like, "I want that print for my clothing line." "I want that print for my website." I want that print for my whatever. And that book became the first catalyst for change in my career, became the first personal project. Because again, this is a project that I rode up on a road trip with my good friend, Eric Soderquist on the way to Jalama Beach. This was literally something we just thought about and told ourselves, "It'd be so cool to do that. "Okay, let's actually do it." We took that $5,000 grant money and we lived off for 50 days, Mexican food, endless breakfast burritos, fixing up his 1976 Volkswagen bus, tons of parking tickets. I mean, that's pretty much what all that money went into, was just basically doing the trip. And then we took those images and we tried to make something of it. And we got lucky, I know that. But also luck meets the prepared. And that's how that happened. Now, when these images came out and I started getting requests for commercial work and new work, I didn't know what to do. This was the first evolution in my career of actually going out and having clients come to me and looking for new types of work. So I started to realize why I did this personal project. And I had a lot of time spent. I mean, I didn't make any money during that time period. Even afterwards, it was tons of time investing into photo editing this thing down from 80,000 images to 250. It was putting down the time to writing this thing, to marketing it, to going on tour with it, et cetera, et cetera. I probably made the least amount of money outta that four year span during that year. But the years following were incredible. It was a huge spike. And I realized it was because I started to have that book go out into the world and it started to come back to me and benefit me. Now, this is really the key with the personal project. Understanding that when times are good or when times are going well, or when you are living in a time of plenty, so to say, I guess, biblically, you wanna be able to look at your opportunities, your time and realize, "I could ride this out as long as I can, "or I can take a moment, carve out some time "and work on this personal project, "that when all this time of good fortune is kind of ending, "I have something to slingshot me through "the next dry spell." And basically what happened was because of my book, I was able to be reached out to, by a company called SmugMug. They're the company I do my prints with now. They're an amazing print... They basically make software that you can sell your prints through, and make websites for photographers that are based up in the Bay area. They reached out to me and they said, "Chris, we love your work, we've seen your books, "have your books, "and we've seen the photographs you shot, "we'd love to make a film on telling your story." And I was like, "What, make a film on me, "like telling my story?" "Like how much money is there for me?" They're like, "Well, we can't pay you, "but we can provide this awesome experience, "and we can put this film out there "and we're gonna put money behind marketing it." And I was like, "Okay," and think this was right around 2009 or 2010, right when my book was being launched. So I went and did this trip and I made this film called "Arctic Swell." And when it came out, it had millions of views, throughout a couple different websites. It it was everywhere, and it had great press great PR. And all of a sudden, again, there's this moment where more work started pouring in after that was able to fully see its lifespan through. Afterwards, I had a call, maybe a year and a half later. It was from somebody at the Ted stage, Ted Global, really the largest speaking platform in the world. And on their team, and someone called me and they said, "Hey, do you have more to say "on this subject of suffering in the Arctic "and the beauty of these wild places "and how this is going to change "the way you see the world?" And I was like, "Yeah, I do." And I mean, realistically, I had no idea what I was saying, but I'm like, anything I can do to get my voice on that stage would be so powerful. And they're like, "Okay, well, you basically have six months "and you better prepare "the one kernel of truth that you have, "that's important to share with the world, "'cause this is the biggest stage you'll ever speak on in your life, and it was. And that experience was another catalyst. Again, these are all a couple years apart, 2006, I did the book, 2009, I did that film. When that film came out, it was more like 2011, 2013 or 14, I think I did the "Ted Talk". Boom, boom, boom. All these experiences were separated by really years where my career was really successful. And then as time started to slow down, I'm trying to kind of think back through and look at what made those years, all of a sudden ramp back up? It was always the personal project. It was the project that for me, would be able to go out into the world, spur some sort of engagement, some sort of news, some sort of really newsworthy article or blog worthy piece, or something people wanna share. And that was really the beauty of it. And I've tried to look at these personal projects as stepping stones in your career to become and receive in some way more notoriety, more respect, more of a need to work with these larger and bigger clients. And that's exactly what happened. Because of the "Ted Talk," I was able to go on and do some amazing speaking engagements. I was able to go on and advocate for some amazing brands. I was able to license some images that people would've never seen otherwise, unless they had seen that "Ted Talk." Now, right around that time, I started to realize something, Well, is it just these personal projects that are all of a sudden getting out there and creating some notoriety or creating a little buzz, or is it the fact that all of a sudden my work was getting into new places, meaning Chris Burkard, the surf photographer could never really get into, some mom and pop store that's selling kids clothes, but if I made a children's book that was something meaningful and important to me, that might be able to introduce my work to a whole new audience. And that's what I ended up doing in 2016, was make a kids book, which is one of the most successful projects I've ever worked on. I made it to honor my own two sons, Jeremiah and Forrest. But that project in and of itself created so much buzz and so much PR, that it was able... Because it was this awesome collaboration and an award-winning children's book. For so many audiences, I would've never known the "Ted Talk," it reached out to so many people who would've never seen my work, otherwise, the "Arctic Swell" video, because it went viral and went out in the world, it again reached out to so many audiences and "The California Surf Project." Now I think to really summarize and kind of ultimately help you kind of gain a deep understanding of the importance of this. I think the best example is truly in my film "Under An Arctic Sky." "Under An Arctic Sky," was a film that we did over the winters of 2015, 2016, and then it took about two years, 2018, I believe, or end of 2017 or so, for it to really come out, and we premiered it at Tribeca Film Festival. It toured around the world. I was personally at almost 80 to 100 tour stops, everywhere from India to New Zealand, to Iceland, to what have you. And I wanted to share this film, this vision. And it's a film about a group of surfers going out and basically getting caught in one of the largest storms in Iceland 25 years, and then ultimately banding together to kind of understand the importance of friendships and relationships that you forge in these wild places. And we were blessed with this crazy experience of surfing under the Northern lights, so that film and that story came to life in a really organic way. It was something that basically just happened, and we went back to kind of recreate some moments and make it into a longer formed film. But the beauty of the project was that all of a sudden, when that went on Netflix and it went on some of these streaming platforms, the growth of my career there really blossomed. It got my work in front of a bunch of new audiences. Lufthansa came and wanted to license some footage, a bunch of other third party brands came out and wanted to use buy purchase license this footage. That was ultimately a huge benefit. Now the film itself didn't make money. It covered its expenses, luckily, but the reality was we put every single dollar that we had. Most of it, my money, most of it, the money of my production company, Sweatpants that I worked with, into music, into production, into making this the best thing we could, because we knew that the value was not in the product itself, just like the value is not in the book, just like the value is not in the film, just like the value is not in the other book, et cetera, et cetera, the value is what that will do for you long term. And what that did was it cast a really wide ripple. You throw this rock right down, you hope that the ripple effect is big enough to affect a shore far, far away. And that's exactly what this film did. Now, I think nowadays I've really tried to, I guess, mathematically put this concept together and apply this to my life. Every two years or so, I wanna come out with something new, something meaningful, something personal. Every single one of these projects was my concept, my idea, whether it was forged with somebody else who helped me out, ultimately it came from my heart. Something that I was excited to do, it's something that I was excited to create. These aren't just projects you're churning out because you wanna create buzz and you wanna create a little more work, you're doing so because you hope that it will again, support your mission statement. It'll potentially get your work in front of new audiences because you wanna support your mission statement, and you're hoping that you can do something that will justify all the soul sucking work you're gonna do for the next two years to make a living. And that's how photography works folks. But the reality here is that I've kind of put this into, I guess, sort of an algorithm where every two years, I want to be investing my time into something new, because I know that there is a lifespan of every artist. You have these years from your early twenties to your late forties, where you're really creating a lot of work, and you're hoping that that work you amass and create will carry you through those later years, to where you can license and you can sell, and you can create some sort of notoriety. And that's really where I'm at. I'm in kind of that middle to the latter end of that, where I don't know how much longer I'm gonna be able to travel this much. And I don't know how much longer I'm gonna be able to work this hard. But I do wanna be investing in a personal project so that when all this commercial work is said and done and all the editorial and all the whatever, I have these singular projects that people are excited by, passionate about and are still living on today. Making a film that people still wanna watch, 'cause it's relevant. Making a book, people still wanna read cause it's relevant, that's what it's about. You create work that lasts longer than yourself so that you can carry your career for a really long time. Now the two newest projects that I have coming out, one of them is something that came out about six months ago, it's a book on Iceland's glacial rivers. It's about the aerial photography of Iceland. I spent seven years in the background of my other commercial projects, while traveling to Iceland, 42 trips, documenting its rivers. Why? Well it's a long story and that story's in the book, 10,000 words of it. But the goal was really to advocate for its glacial river systems and the destruction of them by giving a voice to basically the Halendid Movement, which is a movement to create a national park in the interior of the country, against aluminum smelters and dams and geothermal energy export and things like that, that might be affecting a lot of these small towns and rivers. Now this is something that I was able to work really closely with the environmental branch of the government in Iceland on, and actually use as a tool to help change policy. And I say that in the very realest of ways, where as a photographer, that hopes his work can advocate for the places he loves, this is pretty much the first real project that I was able to start and finish and call my own, that was able to actually be the most extensive documentation of this place, that's now used by a lot of people over there to advocate for these places. Before COVID, I was supposed to go over there and speak at some of these tiny municipalities and towns, and even do a little more advocacy work, but that ended. So now this book is still selling, it's still going out there. Part of the proceeds and many of the events that I've done in the past have gone to support this movement. And that book is something that I hope is around forever. Another project that I just came out with, also kind of based in Iceland is actually a story about a good friend of mine, Ellie Thor. It's a film project called "Unnur," that I actually created alongside Sony and Billabong. They underwrote the trip. Why? Let's see, let's break this down. Well, we were gonna shoot everything on Sony cameras using the new VENICE, which was a new piece of technology. So there was a story to tell there. We were shooting a film about a photographer, which also advocated for their products. The story, regardless of what it was for them was enough to justify them pitching in for it. It's a story about a father-daughter relationship and the complexities of raising a kid as a single parent. Ellie had a near death experience that really changed his life and his outlook on risk. And this relationship and the story just kind of circles around the turmoil of doing what you love, and risking kinda losing yourself in the process of potentially raising your kids. And it really deals with, I think the complexities that me as a growing, aging, father storyteller is facing in my own life. I mean, that's really what I mean by working on projects that you feel personally connected to, because when it's 2:00 AM and it's freezing cold and you're hungry and you're tired, you need a project, that's gonna get you out of bed. You need something that you care about, something that you really want to bring 100% of yourself to. And these are projects that I care about. And I realize that each one becomes more and more meaningful. Now "Unnur," was also supported by the surf company, Billabong, because we are talking about them as surfers, his daughter surfs, amazing girl, and they're both wearing the wetsuit, so there was an organic relationship there with the brands. I wasn't like, "Hey, Monster energy, "like jump in here." They'd be sweet for them to be like pounding these things, didn't make sense. So you're trying to find ways to create a personal project that hopefully now not losing money on, because I think I've built up the notoriety and respect that brands understand what I'm gonna bring to the table, but I'm able to get the job done and even maybe, carry myself through that period of time without losing any income. Now, "Unnur" is slated to release it's touring film festivals right now, and it's slated to release in the fall, probably right when kind of this releases and it'll be something that'll be out for everybody to watch and enjoy. And at that moment, that's when it'll really support the brands and really be able to get out there and have their logos placed in the video as well. This concept of the personal project, still rings true for me right in this very moment. I'm always looking for that project. And the key thing is I wanna space it apart to understand that every two years really, I wanna be potentially coming out with something new, something that people know, "Hey, this is what Chris cares about, "this is what Chris really wants to leave with the world." Because at the end, that's really all I hope to have. I hope to have my collection of books, six or seven books that I've made. My collection of films, eight or nine films that I've made. My collection of really talks and speeches and things that I hope that people can base kind of what I loved and what I feared losing most with the world. And I would say that if you can do the one hard thing, which is when times are good, you really need to take that step back. Because I'll tell you what, it's really hard to invest your time into a personal project or something that's gonna ask a lot of you, or really just kill you every day, getting up and working on it, when you don't really have the energy, the time, the money to go spend. So when times are good, it's really important to reconsider, "How long am I gonna ride this train? "Am I gonna be able to stop, take a minute, "work and invest into one of these projects?" And yes, they will be an investment, whether it's time or money or whatever, it is going to be an investment. And that's really what I would urge you to do, is think of your career in the cyclical pattern. And you have these highs and lows. And when you get to those low points, you need something that's gonna sling shot you up, a little NOS you can kick over in your car, that's gonna push you back up to this high point in your career. And I would say that if there's one fundamental piece of marketing advice I can give you, is that it's been these projects that have been the greatest investment in marketing for my own brand and my own business that I could have ever envisioned.