Red Bull Illume: The Photographer’s Super Bowl – Part I

Red Bull Illume is the world’s premier international photography competition dedicated to the arena of action and adventure sports. The Image Quest 2013 is the 3rd edition of the competition which also occurred in 2007 and 2010. From tens of thousands of masterful entries, 50 images in ten categories were selected by international judges and photo editors from renowned publications. 

The overall winner of the 2013 Image Quest was Lorenz Holder of Germany. His image (above) of snowboarder Xaver Hoffmann performing a jump off of a satellite dish in snowy Raisting, Germany was lauded by the judge’s panel.

The Winner Award Ceremony took place on August 29th of last year, and the Top 50 Red Bull Illume finalists were unveiled at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. The 50 finalist images were then shuffled around the globe to Phoenix, Arizona, then to Vancouver and now to Atlanta beginning March 20th, and will then tour internationally as a unique and talent-laden photo exhibition on 2 x 2m lightboxes. To showcase the illumination, the exhibitions are only open at night.

The Shadow League spoke with Illume veteran Chris Burkard who won the overall competition in 2010 and won the Spirit Award for this Illume. Burkard says growing up near the ocean really challenged him to capture the beauty of the ocean and the sports that he loves. He would take the camera out on early morning bodyboarding missions and shoot his friends in action. Central California in particular offered a dramatic landscape with rolling dunes in one direction and a rugged coastline up through Big Sur in the other. This natural beauty is what ended up inspiring Burkhard, and it remains the focal point of most of his imagery.

TSL: What sparked your interest in photography and when did you know that you could gain fame and recognition for your work?

CB: I was always searching for a way to express myself creatively, and I latched onto art in high school because it was my favorite subject. When I bought my first camera (at Goodwill for $65) I found a new creative outlet. Photography really spoke to me in its ability to be used as an extension of my body. I could take it anywhere. I also enjoyed the challenge that it gave me from the beginning and still does currently. My very first roll of film didn't even turn out, and I had to try again and again. I was hooked. I realized I could really have a career in this industry when I received the "Follow The Light” Grant (in honor of Larry “Flame” Moore). It helped me make connections. It led me to take my first major journey which resulted in the "California Surf Project", a published book that helped confirm my passion and place within the surf photography community. Winning Red Bull Illume helped elevate my work globally. It allowed my photos to find homes within and outside of Surfer Magazine.

TSL: What kind of response have you gotten from people since winning?

CB: The Illume contest connects you to so many different photographers. I find that aspect to be super rewarding. To be recognized by accomplished peers and share with them stories and tips is super fun. The response has been positive, and I've found this broadening community of photographers and fans.

TSL: What kind of journey has Illume taken you on? Describe some of your fondest moments going through this process.

CB: I first entered in 2010. And, I came into it initially thinking that I was a long shot. I was intimidated by these amazing photographers who I was up against. I remember that first moment up on that stage when I found out I’d won the contest. It was one of the few times where I've felt appreciated and honored just for my work. That's a rare moment. Taking home the Award in 2010 filled me with joy. Continuing to stay connected with Illume motivated me to further improve my game, and winning in the Spirit category this time is unreal. It's been a great journey.

TSL: Where have you traveled and worked as a photographer?

CB: There are so many places. In just this past year I've been to Iceland, Norway, Russia, Alaska, Cuba, and many more. The variety makes it worth it. I travel to experience new things and share them with people. The places that I go and the things I've endured for work are a little brutal, but I'm okay with that. I like to suffer a little for what I do. It makes me feel more alive.

TSL: What is your most memorable moment in trying to capture a photo? Describe story of comedy or danger.

CB: There are plenty of crazy things that have happened on these trips. I was thrown into a Russian prison for Visa complications. I lost all my gear on a small boat in Chile. The captain was drunk and drove me into a 8-foot shorebreak. When I recently went to Alaska we took a fishing boat around to explore some of the State's secluded surf breaks. We stopped at coves, and I swam in to get some surfing shots from land. After one session everyone had already paddled back to the boat, and I made my way out through some heavy shorebreak waves. I was already exhausted from the swim when I spotted killer whales between myself and the boat. I felt helpless. I wasn't going to out swim whales. For a moment I remained motionless in the water, frozen in surrender. They moved enough for me to get around them and safely to the boat. That was a pretty crazy experience.

TSL: How has digital photography advanced your craft?

CB: Digital photography creates immediate feedback on imagery. I'm posting photos that I might have taken just minutes prior. That's pretty wild. Your images can be seen by hundreds of thousands of people and you can measure that engagement. Before the process took a lot longer and the response wasn't quite as big.

TSL: Who/what are your current inspirations and what does the future hold as far as creations? Competitions?

CB: I'm inspired by a lot of these young guys and through Instagram and what other photographers are doing. It's hard for photographers to stand out in a sea of good work, but there's a guy based in Brooklyn, Forest Woodward, he shoots a lot of climbing and adventure work. Another favorite is Corey Arnold. He is a commercial fisherman and professional photographer who shoots and works a lot in Alaska. His stuff is really inspirational. In the future I'm just looking to expand my business. Hopefully I'll work on some more books and films. I'm always looking at photo competitions to try and receive feedback and have my work judged by others as well.

TSL: Where did you attend school?

CB: I took some art classes at a local college out here in Central California, Cuesta College. I found more luck working with professionals and working as an apprentice to a landscape photographer, Michael Fatali.

TSL: What is the “big fish” photo you are yet to capture?

CB: That's a big one – maybe Antarctica. I'm always looking to tap into somewhere remote and extreme.

TSL: How do you top yourself next Illume?

CB: I just hope to bring something to the table that inspires others and hopefully grows my own work in the process. There's plenty of places that I have on my travel list that should allow me to bring back some great imagery.

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