Chris Burkard is a landscape photographer whose talent has been featured by companies like Toyota, Apple, and many more. He has one wife, two children, and 653,000 Instagram followers.
He and Mitch Stevens of Dreamling Books are collaborating to create a children’s book to help kids discover their sense of adventure. I sat down with them to talk about creativity, Mormonism, and The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth.
RG: Can you give me a little background info on your life growing up?
CB: So I grew up in San Louis Obispo, which is on the coast of Central California. Growing up, all I wanted to do was travel. I never saw the world, I never left my hometown because we didn’t have the money. So for me, all my big adventures were going to do something a few hours from my house. I learned to appreciate the adventures big and small because that’s how my life had been. These close proximity places, you know, going to the beach, going to big Sur, going to Utah. That’s how I started to see the world.
RG: Did you grow up in the LDS faith?
CB: I actually joined when I was a kid. Like 8 or 9, kind of from a friend I was going to school with.
RG: Oh interesting, were you the only member of your family who joined?
CB: So the full story is that my grandma and a couple relatives were LDS but my Mom was not into the church growing up. So she kind of went rogue and had me when she was 17 and we had nothing to do with the church growing up. Then I got a little older and I had a friend who was going so I just decided to start going and to take the Missionary lessons. My mom was super open and we both took the lessons together and she came back to church when I converted. She actually got re-married to a member of the church and now my whole family is LDS. My Mom was a single mom for a number of years so it was pretty awesome to see her go from being a single mom to having a family of four boys and be married in the temple.
RG: Wow, that is so great! So can you tell me how you got interested in photography and where you trained?
CB: Well in high school I did a bit of art and that was really my only experience with being creative. I always loved the idea of being creative but I didn’t know how it would play into my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I wanted to do something I would be appreciated for.
I drew a lot and I was decent at it, and I started thinking, how could I do something creative that would allow me to go places and see the world? Art kind of seemed like it was going to keep my by my easel in a studio, but photography was this medium where I could go shoot my friends surfing and I realized it could take me somewhere.
So that’s kind of what I did. I flung myself into it. Originally I was attracted to landscape photography. I didn’t have money to go to photography school and you can’t really get a great photography degree from a junior college, you have to go to a specialty school. So I said screw it and I went to Utah for a summer and I shot landscapes there. I went out there and studied with a landscape photographer a bit. I came back and realized there was no way to make money in landscapes. So I thought, what else could I do? I loved surfing and I shot surfing a bit so I thought I should combine those two things—take this landscape approach with my surfing photography. And that’s what I did, I started taking this approach that really celebrates the places we go to. And the surfing photography is kind of how I forged my career and my name for myself.
RG: That’s so interesting. So what makes up the bulk of your work now, is it surfing or landscapes?
CB: Now it’s kind of come full circle. I’m getting hired to do jobs by Toyota or Apple, where it really is about going to these places and photographing these big vast open spaces, because they know that my specialty is knowing how to place a subject in a landscape and to beautify it in that way.
RG: You obviously have great respect for nature. What is your take on the relationship between nature and religion?
CB: Hmm, that’s a funny one. I can agree with people that I’ve never felt closer to the creator than when I’m in some of these amazing places. But none of that would even be relevant if I didn’t have some way to share it.
So to me, I know I’ve been blessed and so lucky to see so much of the world so in a lot of ways I feel like it’s my mission to share these beautiful creations with other people. I’m not the greatest person at going out and saying, “Hey I’m Mormon, you should join the church!!” So for me it’s more about the subtlety of saying, this is where we need to be, is out in nature enjoying these creations. And that’s really what I’m trying to do through my work is let people celebrate that.
For me, nature, just like religion, is a very personal thing. It’s something I take very seriously and it’s somewhere I feel very much complete.
But when it comes to religion, I guess one of the most important things I’ve found is, you know, you have these people who say, “Why do we have to go to church on Sunday? I could easily feel the spirit being in the mountains,” and I agree with that. But to me, the whole purpose of church is not about enabling just ourselves to feel the spirit, it’s so important that we are able to bring experiences we have in the world back to share with other people. I feel like we congregate so we can uplift each other. And maybe on any given Sunday I’m not there to uplift myself, maybe I’m just there to share something with a class or share my testimony or uplift someone else, and that’s an important aspect of religion and why we worship and congregate and gather together.
RG: Has being Mormon affected your career as a photographer? Has it made it more or less difficult in any way?
CB: I would say absolutely. I had to turn down a really big job a few weeks ago because it was something I didn’t agree with. And I can’t tell you how much it hurts to do that because it’s not just my career, I have five people in my office. And all of those people who don’t necessarily have the same faith as me, they would have made great money off of that job. So it’s painful sometimes to turn down work when I feel blessed to even be able to be a photographer in this day and age. But I also feel like huge blessings have come from that. I feel like I’ve only been blessed more because I’ve decided to make the right decisions and do what I know is right by me.
It’s always been a matter of prayer between me and my wife about which jobs are imperative and which aren’t. Sometimes we don’t get the right feeling about a job so we don’t go for it simply because of that, and other times it’s really black and white as you can imagine, when you’re talking about shooting alcohol or cigarettes. My job and career decisions are very complex. It takes a lot of introspection and prayer to really make those decisions.
And then you also have the editorial world where I’m going on these adventure trips with five or six surfers to some crazy remote place and none of them share the same beliefs as me. And we’re out there somewhere super far away and I have to deal with their decision making and it’s definitely tough, I mean you have to be able to hang out on your own in your room sometimes, just to avoid what people want to do. So yes, my religion can definitely complicate things.
RG: Tell me about this new Kickstarter project. What is the goal?
CB: Books are such a passion of mine. I really love creating things that are tangible, that’s been a big part of my work. I’ve done four or five books but it’s really unique to do a book where you can actually give it to the general public and let them be part of it. That’s been so important with this book, which is why we did it on Kickstarter. We could’ve probably figured out a way to fund it ourselves, but it’s been so important to let people feel a part of it and let them support it and get the community to rally behind it.
The premise of the book, really, it’s simple. I don’t want to pass down some inherent fear of the unknown to my children, and that’s what this book really teaches. It’s about the adventures big and small, it’s about taking our kids and letting them ask the big questions like “how do I find happiness?” and ultimately showing them that happiness is all around you and you simply need to open your eyes and experience it. Obviously this book has a very strong tie to nature and finding happiness in the outdoor world away from freeways and cell phones and emails and daily life. I think this book is just as much an important thing for parents as it is for children.
RG: We can’t wait to read it! So what’s next for you?
CB: Honestly, this has been one of the biggest months of my life. I don’t even know how to describe it, but I’m about to do a TED talk, which is one of the greatest honors I’ve had in my entire life. Having the opportunity to pass on this kernel of truth that I can ideally give to my children, give to my family, and look back in 20 years and think, wow, I was really living you know?
I think the TED talk mixed with this book, all these things to me are something that ultimately I just want to share with my kids. And it’s so incredibly fulfilling because I never saw it coming. If you’d asked me three years ago what was next I would have said, oh a TED talk! And a Children’s book! And now I’m doing it and I honestly can’t describe it. I feel like every blessing or success in my career is directly related to the fact that I have tried to live my life in the right way.
One other thing about me is that I wasn’t able to serve a mission because I made some poor decisions, but one of the things I never wanted to compromise was a temple marriage. So that became one of those things that I worked as hard as I could to do, and I feel like since I’ve made that decision and tried to live right I feel like I’ve really been blessed for that decision. And it’s easy to say it’s something else but I feel like the success in my career has been directly related to the faith that I have.
RG: Thank you for sharing that. Mitch, can you tell me a bit about Dreamling Books?
MS: Yeah! So I graduated from BYU and was working in advertising. I thought I had my dream job. But the longer I did it the more I realized that my creativity was being stifled, and I couldn’t let my ideas breathe because I was so busy fulfilling our clients’ needs. And so I quit and had this brilliant idea of writing children’s books for a living, which was obviously not the most lucrative decision.
I moved in with my brother and started writing, and I didn’t know what was around the corner, but then an old friend from High School, Ben Ehlert, got in touch with me and asked about my interest in writing for children. He was kind of in a similar boat where he’d had an inspiring trip to Kenya and it made him rethink why he was going to school and what he wanted in his career. He had this idea to start a publishing company. So from there we kind of started developing things to make it a new type of publishing company. We like to call it a publishing community instead of a company, because it’s sort of a democratic approach to publishing.
RG: So how would you sum up the company in a few sentences?
MS: Our goal as a company is to inspire people through stories to be better and to follow their dreams. We all have a story to tell. Dreamling Books is trying to encourage people to share those stories with each other, work together to improve them, and ultimately inspire one another to live more fulfilling lives.
RG: Awesome. So what is next for you guys?
MS: We have some other books in the pipeline with people like Chris. We hope they work out but they’re definitely busy people and we’re busy, so we’ll have to keep you posted on that. But our main focus is developing this web platform, getting a lot of users involved, and making it available for everyone to write a children’s book. We’re even looking to expand outside inspirational children’s books to overall inspirational stories, so more people can be involved.
So great. Thank you guys so much for sharing this, and we can’t wait to read The Boy who Spoke to the Earth.
Chris Burkard lives with his wife and his two sons, Forest and Jeremiah in San Louis Obispo, California.
Mitch Stevens lives in Salt Lake City, Ut. He is working to bring Dreamling Books to life with his teammates Ben Ehlert, Jesse Draper, Nate Sorenson, Piper Morgan, Alex Masterson, Dave McClellan
If you would like to contribute to The Boy Who Spoke to the Earth, click here.