Profile – Chris Eyre-Walker
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.