Pro­file – Chris Eyre-Walker

Chris Eyre-Walker

ProPhoto - - CONTENTS - IN­TER­VIEW BY BRUCE USHER

Pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy is a tough busi­ness these days and even more so if you want to spe­cialise… such as in action and ad­ven­ture pho­tog­ra­phy. Chris Eyre-Walker tells Bruce Usher how he’s us­ing so­cial me­dia to help build both aware­ness and a busi­ness.

Mak­ing a de­cent liv­ing from ad­ven­ture and ex­treme sports im­agery can be as much of a chal­lenge as the dar­ing ex­ploits that many of these pho­tog­ra­phers un­der­take in pur­suit of stun­ning pic­tures and footage. Bruce Usher talks to one young pho­tog­ra­pher and film-maker who is work­ing hard to build a suc­cess­ful busi­ness via so­cial me­dia.

“How is this even pos­si­ble? We’re at 5200 me­tres el­e­va­tion, right in the mid­dle of a glacier. How can it smell of rot­ting meat?”

Chris Eyre-Walker’s guide, An­dre, turns to him and says sim­ply, “Dead bod­ies”. These are the bod­ies of moun­taineers who have fallen off the moun­tain and spent the last 20 to 30 years frozen in the thick ice, but are now be­ing re­vealed again as the glacier melts. It’s an un­pleas­ant but very real man­i­fes­ta­tion of cli­mate change.

It’s Septem­ber 2017 and 27-year-old pho­tog­ra­pher and film-maker Chris Eyre-Walker is some­where on the bor­der be­tween Kyr­gyzs­tan and Ta­jik­istan, ap­proach­ing 6000 me­tres on Lenin Peak, and the ad­ven­turer in­side him try­ing is to con­vince him­self “…that this was still a great idea”.

I first met Chris Eyre-Walker on so­cial me­dia – to be pre­cise at 9.37pm on 11 June 2016. I re­ceived a mes­sage from Chris on Face­book which said, “Hey, Bruce. Nice to con­nect. Sorry, but I’m not sure if we have met be­fore and I was won­der­ing where or how you found me?”

In the past hour he had re­ceived ten friend re­quests and wasn’t sure what was go­ing on. I had just got three friend re­quests from Por­tu­gal and Brazil and was not sure if they were spam, but no­ticed Chris was a friend of one and he had worked for the Cal­i­for­nian ad­ven­ture pho­tog­ra­pher Chris Burkard. Chris Eyre-Walker was now mak­ing his way home to Syd­ney af­ter be­ing on the road for 16 months.

He grew up in Bel­gium and trav­elled over­seas annually as a child. He’d been to Africa twice by the time he was six and an­other two times by the age of eight. Even­tu­ally he got hold of his par­ent’s old cam­era and began record­ing his trav­els. At school, Chris re­calls, he was into “… maths and science – num­bers and logic – and I steered away from the artis­tic”. Af­ter leav­ing high school, he was look­ing for a chal­lenge and, also lov­ing sport, found it all in the army’s elite SAS.

“I loved get­ting paid to go on runs five or six times a week, but even­tu­ally that chal­lenge died out.”

He then trav­elled around the world and met his girl­friend. They were trav­el­ling in op­po­site di­rec­tions, but stayed in touch and, as a bonus, Chris re­ally began to get into pho­tog­ra­phy. The pair met up again in Bel­gium and de­cided to be­come a cou­ple, but Chris had promised his par­ents that, af­ter this last trip, he would study. It was to be graphic de­sign or, as it’s called in Bel­gium, info graph­ics, which in­cluded cod­ing, games de­sign and 3D art or, as he re­calls, “Re­ally any­thing you could do on a com­puter that’s artis­tic”.

But af­ter two months of solid rain – and the fact that his girl­friend did not speak any of the lan­guages spo­ken in Bel­gium – the pair made the de­ci­sion to head for Aus­tralia.

From Stu­dio To Surf

In Aus­tralia on a work­ing hol­i­day visa, Chris started as a de­liv­ery man, but then got the op­por­tu­nity to work for a stu­dio in Syd­ney called SKU­van­tage which spe­cialises in prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy.

“I was so lucky. They had this prob­lem that needed solv­ing on a job for Michael Hill Jew­eller. I hadn’t shot jew­ellery be­fore, but I fig­ured it out. It wasn’t the per­fect so­lu­tion, but it worked. Shoot­ing jew­ellery is all logic. There’s no art, but there is an art in do­ing it right.”

New clients were com­ing in with prod­ucts that he hadn’t pho­tographed be­fore, so Chris would sit down and work out how to shoot them, learn­ing on the job. He was also com­plet­ing an on­line graphic de­sign course, plus he had done a few other pho­tog­ra­phy as­sign­ments.

“Un­der­stand­ing light was the big­gest les­son, so now I’m pretty confident that I can pho­to­graph any ob­ject, but I’m still not that confident with peo­ple.”

Chris began con­tract­ing his ser­vices and so had the time to do his own thing. Ev­ery Fri­day he would go to a beach to pho­to­graph surfers.

“I had this stupid idea that no one else is shoot­ing all these surfers. It was new to me and I loved it. I thought if I shoot these peo­ple surf­ing then they would want to buy some images.”

He bought an un­der­wa­ter hous­ing and wanted to go out in the big­gest waves pos­si­ble,

“I was a 21-year-old guy from Bel­gium – who had been land-locked my whole life – div­ing into the Aus­tralian surf.”

He started sell­ing a few prints to the lo­cal surfers, but says he had more fun ac­tu­ally do­ing it than achiev­ing the purpose of it. He loved be­ing in the ocean and that was the spark… the im­pe­tus for him to be­come a surf pho­tog­ra­pher and to re­duce his stu­dio work.

With­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing how dif­fi­cult it is to shoot surf and make a liv­ing, Chris sold his D-SLR gear and adopted the new mir­ror­less tech­nol­ogy in the Olympus OM-D cam­eras, par­tic­u­larly at­tracted by the avail­abil­ity of a ded­i­cated un­der­wa­ter hous­ing. At that point, no­body was shoot­ing surf­ing with these cam­eras and he didn’t know if the hous­ing would be up to the job. It was – and his idea was then to show Olympus what he was achiev­ing with its mir­ror­less cam­eras (he is now an Olympus Vi­sion­ary brand am­bas­sador). How­ever, Chris also kept on with the stu­dio-

based prod­uct pho­tog­ra­phy: “I loved it as much as I hated it. Jew­ellery pho­tog­ra­phy is so com­plex and dif­fi­cult to do, but I loved the chal­lenges”.

He started shoot­ing short video clips of be­tween 20 or 30 sec­onds du­ra­tion, fea­tur­ing the watches and rings as they ro­tated on a small plat­form. This was the first time he worked with con­stant light sources rather than elec­tronic flash.

“Why do we have to shoot with a big brick of a cam­era,” Chris asks, “when they can put the same stuff – if not better stuff – in some­thing smaller? Mo­bile phones and lap­tops have pro­gres­sively got smaller and lighter, so why not cam­eras? I liked that Olympus was be­ing so in­no­va­tive here. I still love D-SLRs, but I don’t think there’s been much in­no­va­tion re­cently. It’s now just about up­grad­ing.”

Learn­ing The Busi­ness

Chris’s next step was a four-month in­tern­ship with pro­lific ad­ven­ture pho­tog­ra­pher Chris Burkard in California, but on the way over he stopped off in Tahiti to pho­to­graph the Teahupoo surf­ing con­test. It was here, he says, that he re­alised the surf­ing in­dus­try was some­thing he was better off not touch­ing.

“On the first day I rocked up like an id­iot and asked, ‘Guys, can I jump in the [me­dia] boat with you and take some pho­tos?’ Most of these pho­tog­ra­phers have been shoot­ing for 20 years or more and there are no new ones com­ing through. ‘ Who are you?’ was their re­sponse. They laughed at me big time, and then I thought, ‘ What am I do­ing here?’.

“But the next day, they said, ‘Mate, that was re­ally brave of you, ask­ing to come on the boat. We ad­mire that you did that. There aren’t not many young guys com­ing out and do­ing this’.” Con­se­quently, Chris was able to stay on the me­dia boat for the rest of the com­pe­ti­tion.

“That’s the luck­i­est I’ve ever been. I did get out in the wa­ter a few times too.”

Chris says he par­tic­u­larly likes Burkard’s “pulled-back” surf pho­tos within the land­scape.

“Burkard is in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful, and if I wanted to learn some­thing of the busi­ness side of pho­tog­ra­phy, he could be the one to teach me.”

Coin­ci­den­tally, on so­cial me­dia, he found out that the stu­dio was look­ing for in­terns.

“The thing with this is that you have to move within driving or walk­ing dis­tance of the stu­dio which, in this case, was at Grover Beach in cen­tral California and ba­si­cally a long way from any­where. Also, it’s un­paid and you have to be fully ded­i­cated.”

Nev­er­the­less, Chris felt the in­tern­ship was a golden op­por­tu­nity, so he and his girl­friend, Freya (who, in­ci­den­tally, is a ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist), headed for California with the plan to start trav­el­ling to­gether af­ter­wards.

The in­tern­ship was for four months, from Septem­ber to De­cem­ber in 2015, and Chris com­pleted it with some fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance from Olympus.

“Chris Burkard shoots a lot of com­mer­cial jobs and he’s re­ally big on so­cial me­dia,” Chris ex­plains. “A lot com­pa­nies use him be­cause of his wide ex­po­sure on so­cial me­dia, but as an intern you’re mostly sit­ting in his of­fice, and not do­ing any pho­tog­ra­phy jobs. He gets hun­dreds of emails each day and the in­terns han­dle 90 per­cent of them. There are many re­quests such as ‘Can you tell me how to shoot surf­ing?’ or, from a start-up com­pany, ‘If we send you this prod­uct, can you put it in some of your pic­tures?’

“His In­sta­gram ac­count has grown by a mil­lion fol­low­ers in the last year to 2.2 mil­lion. Whether you like it or not, this is what peo­ple are af­ter. He’s does all this out­door ad­ven­ture stuff, but he’s still ded­i­cated to surf. Dur­ing my four months there, I saw him maybe for three weeks be­cause he’s trav­el­ling so much. There are 11 peo­ple work­ing for him full-time, in­clud­ing a stu­dio man­ager, an image edi­tor, a brand man­ager and two peo­ple who look af­ter all the li­cens­ing. He can pick any job he wants now. He’s in­cred­i­bly good at busi­ness, and re­ally good at talk­ing to peo­ple.”

In­spired By Suc­cess

Af­ter the in­tern­ship fin­ished, Chris and Freya headed to Nicaragua, where she was do­ing a project. Here they re­alised that there’s a whole undis­cov­ered world away from the coast and Chris began de­vel­op­ing a pas­sion for moun­tains. Then, in Jan­uary 2016, Freya started a travel ’blog with the idea of be­ing able to travel and also make money.

“I slipped a lit­tle bit into what Burkard was do­ing,” says Chris. “I was in­spired by his suc­cess. I saw that this is what the world wants, but at the same time I re­alised that what he was do­ing wasn’t real all the time. I’m OK with that, as I saw what ef­fect it had… it’s amaz­ing that peo­ple are in­spired to get out­side be­cause they see one of his pho­tos. The pos­i­tive in­flu­ence is quite spe­cial.”

Chris de­cided he wanted to shoot on-lo­ca­tion ad­ven­ture pho­tos that were real and to tell sto­ries that were real. He says he also re­alised that “…video was the fu­ture for me, shar­ing my ad­ven­ture and hav­ing an ad­ven­ture at the same time. Plus I could use video to tell the sto­ries be­hind my shots.” He taught him­self video edit­ing. “There was a bit of trial and er­ror at first, but as Adobe soft­ware is de­signed to work to­gether and sort of fol­lows the same struc­ture for each pro­gram, switch­ing from photo to video wasn’t all that dif­fi­cult.

When Chris and Freya ini­tially started set­ting up the travel ’blog ( The Sandy Feet), they wanted a tem­plate that could be fully cus­tomised.

“Over the years, Chris has de­signed sev­eral Web­sites and so had a good idea of what ca­pa­bil­i­ties would be most use­ful for us,” ex­plains Freya. “Once we had cho­sen the tem­plate, we spent a lot of time look­ing at sam­ples to get ideas of how we wanted to struc­ture the site, as well as look­ing at dozens of other Web­sites to see what we liked, what we didn’t and what worked well for the reader.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy is ob­vi­ously one of the cou­ples’ strengths, and they wanted to make this a prom­i­nent fea­ture from the start. “From there it went all the way down to the tiny de­tails like which font and let­ter spac­ing would be the most reader-friendly.”

Highs, Lows And Highs

At the end of April 2017, Chris flew from Copen­hagen to the re­mote Faroe Is­lands for prob­a­bly the big­gest ad­ven­ture he has had so far. He de­scribes it as “two weeks of mad­ness”. In one post on Face­book, he ob­served, “Had it all to­day – sun­shine, rain, hail, snow, gale-force winds, and in all pos­si­ble se­quences and com­bi­na­tions”.

A 30-minute ad­ven­ture film was the re­sult, shot in a me­tre of snow at -15 de­grees Cel­sius and with 50 km/h winds. This project was sup­ported by Olympus. Shortly af­ter, he trav­elled to South Africa and then to Namibia for an­other Olympus project. When we last touched base in late Septem­ber 2017, Chris had just at­tempted the climb of Lenin Peak for a self-as­signed as­sign­ment, af­ter trav­el­ling around Kaza­khstan.

So back to where we started at the be­gin­ning of this pro­file.

“Lenin Peak is a 7134-me­tres-high moun­tain in the south of Kyr­gyzs­tan, on the bor­der with Ta­jik­istan,” Chris ex­plains. “And, be­lieve it or not, you need doc­u­ments that al­low you to tra­verse into Ta­jik­istan for this sum­mit. Not that you tech­ni­cally go into the neigh­bour­ing coun­try, or that you have

to fear a bor­der con­trol at 6100 me­tres… it’s all just in case you fall off the wrong side of the moun­tain.”

At 4.00 am Chris – along with a French climber and a guide – set off for the sum­mit from their camp at 6400 me­tres. It was dark and the only thing he could see was, “the cir­cle of light my head­lamp... cast­ing onto a seem­ingly ver­ti­cal ice wall prac­ti­cally at arm’s reach in front of me. A never-end­ing wall of ice”.

He knew he had to climb up the long ice face be­fore it would flat­ten out, but he was al­ready drained of en­ergy.

“Ev­ery step took five breaths and ev­ery five steps re­quired a break. A frozen Snick­ers to the rescue and I felt fine again.”

The three dis­cussed giv­ing up, but Chris sug­gested climb­ing at least a lit­tle fur­ther. They did and even­tu­ally reached the top of the ice face, but sud­denly the wind grew ever stronger. A glimpse of light on the hori­zon an­nounced a new day and Chris could feel his en­ergy reviving.

“With ev­ery step I felt stronger and more de­ter­mined to reach the sum­mit. I could do this! My French friend, how­ever, was strug­gling. He couldn’t feel his toes and was sure he was get­ting frost­bite.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy in these harsh con­di­tions is a chal­lenge.

“Pre-vi­su­al­is­ing the com­po­si­tion, then get­ting the cam­era out, tak­ing off one glove, ad­just­ing the set­tings and tak­ing the shot was the only way to shoot at that alti­tude. The viewfinder froze in sec­onds, and the mon­i­tor screen be­came use­less be­cause it was too dif­fi­cult to see with Level 4 sun­glasses. My fin­gers were numb and were ac­tu­ally get­ting frost­bite within just sec­onds. But this is a sce­nario where the cam­era just has to work and I had con­trol over the basics [shut­ter and aper­ture set­tings] all the time. Re­ly­ing heav­ily on the light me­ter, I was able to in­stantly read and ad­just my set­tings in man­ual and then, with a quick flick, I could switch over to the movie mode.

“We de­cided to turn back at about 6500 me­tres, but not be­fore ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the most amaz­ing sun­rise we’d ever seen. I gath­ered all my strength and cap­tured a few shots and some video footage. I was slightly gut­ted about the failure, but awestruck by the beauty of what we were wit­ness­ing. I thought this was worth ev­ery mo­ment of suf­fer­ing.” To see more of Chris Eyre-Walker’s pho­tog­ra­phy and video visit The Sandy Feet travel ’blog at https://the­sandyfeet.com, his Web­site at https://chriseyre­walker.com or the Chris Eyre-Walker chan­nel on YouTube.

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