It all started with a guest speaker at a community college. While taking photography classes in his hometown of San Diego, landscape and action sports photographer Travis Burke heard that a Surfer magazine editor would be giving a talk to some of the journalism students. Though the session had nothing to do with photography, Burke decided to attend, hoping to glean insight about the editorial process that might help him understand what imagery magazines need.
After the talk, Burke introduced himself to the editor and showed him his portfolio of images. “I had no expectations that he would be very interested,” Burke says. But after about 10 minutes flipping through Burke’s work, the editor paused and said, “I need to get you into my office.”
That’s how Burke ended up at GrindTV receiving the job offer of his dreams—a staff photographer position for the company’s suite of action sports magazines, which includes Surfer, Skateboarding, and Canoe & Kayak. What happened next was even more remarkable: Burke turned it down.
During the editor’s talk at the community college, he’d described his career path—how he’d started out as a professional surfer before becoming a chief writer and editor with Surfer, traveling to all the world’s most amazing surfing locations. Then he said something that stood out to Burke: Out of all the trips he’d enjoyed, the most meaningful was a one-month solo road trip he’d made across the United States. “It was like he was talking directly to me, telling me what I needed to do with my life,” Burke says.
When the editor offered Burke the job of his dreams, all he could think of was that road trip. He thanked the editor for the opportunity but said he’d been thinking about a road trip himself. “He looked at me and said, ‘If you have the chance to do a trip like that, you can’t pass it up.’” Then the editor surprised Burke with an unbelievable proposal: If Burke would send photos from his one-month road trip, the editor would cover the cost of the journey plus a small salary. “That basically just blew me away,” Burke says.
Throughout his journey, Burke sent photos to a GrindTV writer, who wrote blog posts covering his adventure. In the end, that road trip stretched to 100 days and proved to be the start of an addiction. By the time Burke returned home, he was already scheming an extended trip in a more advanced adventure vehicle. It’s the road trip he’s been on for more than three and a half years now.
One thing was clear to Burke during that first road trip: The Toyota Tacoma truck with camper shell he’d used didn’t cut it. “It was very tight and cramped,” he says. “The bottom half of the camper shell was a platform where I stored all my equipment, and the top half was where I slept. That only left a foot and a half between the bed and the ceiling, so I had to edit photos lying down on the bed with the computer on my stomach.”
He dreamed of a vehicle that would allow him to stand upright and have luxuries like a kitchen with a sink. But such vehicles were well outside his budget. Six months went by with no luck finding something he could afford when his grandmother in Texas called. She had an old camper van sitting in her driveway and she offered it to him for free if he’d fly out and drive it home.
Grandma’s 20-year-old van didn’t exactly match up with the adventure vehicle of Burke’s imagination: It was appointed with blue shag carpet, for one thing. But Burke had always been good with his hands, so he sold his Toyota Tacoma and used the money to refurbish the old camper himself, building in a new cabinet and flooring, painting the outside, and installing a roof rack and ladders for his adventure gear. It took three months, and he did 90 percent of the work himself. His friends thought he was crazy. “They were telling me I was making bad life decisions,” he says. “But I felt like I could do it even though they were laughing at me.”
The last step was to end his lease, sell his furniture, and take off. Burke wasn’t sure how long he’d stay on the road. But to assuage his friends and family, who seemed perplexed when he said he didn’t know when he’d return, he called it a one-year road trip. He set off at midnight on his birthday for his indefinite jaunt. “It’s been one of the craziest and coolest experiences and adventures in my life.”
Malleability has been a running theme of Burke’s years on the road. “I try to keep my schedule extremely flexible to where I’m not forced to do something at a certain time because you never know what’s going to happen,” he says. The unexpected is what he’s after with his photography—those location gems off the tourist path that nobody knows about but he’s stumbled upon. So he goes with the flow when a local points him in the direction of something interesting. “If you’re too scheduled or planned out then it doesn’t allow you the time for spur-of-the-moment activities, whether it’s meeting up with people or taking a fork in the road and driving down it having no idea where it leads.” Plus, some locals offer hospitality—inviting him to their house for a meal, a shower, or to do laundry. “That’s been really cool to see,” Burke says, and those interactions help him get to know the area. Having a van equipped with solar power makes it easy for him to “disappear into the middle of nowhere” for an extended period on a moment’s notice. “I much prefer to be out in nature,” he says, not having to drive back to a civilization to recharge batteries, for example.
Burke engages in sponsored and freelance photography. He has yearly contracts with a number of companies—GoPro, Clif Bar, Goal Zero, Forsake footwear, and HippyTree Apparel, among others. (He turns down 90 percent of the contracts offered to him because they don’t fit his own brand.) Under these contracts he’s obligated to provide specific deliverables: photos made with the GoPro, photos of him wearing the clothing while participating in outdoor sports, etc. Having these contracts means there’s always a place for his images. It also means he has a dependable income. The gravy income is accrued through freelance work. Sometimes he’ll make photographs and pitch them to a publication for a potential story; sometimes publications or companies reach out to him to license images.
One of Burke’s goals is to encourage people to explore what’s in their backyard. So many Americans travel to other countries but don’t visit the treasures in their own state, he laments. In that spirit, in recent years he’s become more conscious of including the human element in his images. He prefers “a small figure, not too prominent or too close in the frame,” he says. “It gives more perspective to these landscapes, a sense of the space.” It also helps viewers imagine themselves there. “It draws them into the image a little more and a little longer and ideally gets them more inspired to experience and visit that place.” One composition trick he likes is to have the subject look toward a landscape feature on which he’d like the viewer to focus.
Burke makes most of his images with a wide-angle lens on a tripod. Though some of his photographs, particularly of action sports, can imply certain risk, Burke is committed to playing it safe. “I don’t talk about it enough, but I try to keep the risk to a minimum,” he says. “Because I do slacklining above a canyon, people think that is stupid or that I’m crazy, but the amount of safety that goes into the rigging process … is extremely high. And there are only a couple of people in the world that I choose to do those adventures with because I know their safety levels and how focused they are on that.” He’s proud that in all his years of participating in adventure sports and photographing them, he’s never broken a bone. “That is a testament to how much I am aware of being safe.”
After all the months and miles, Grandma’s van is running ragged, Burke admits. “It’s over 20 years old and pushed way past what it was ever intended for. In all honesty, almost everything is breaking down at this point.” But with the crumbling of the old van comes the opportunity for a new chapter. Having made multiple loops around the United States, Burke is ready to see new frontiers, starting with South America. At press time, he was on the verge of getting a loan approved to purchase a custom-built four-wheel drive vehicle.
This $300,000 adventure-mobile will be a significant upgrade to the van, incorporating a bathroom and shower with hot water (“Four years without a bathroom has been a little challenging,” he admits); a full kitchen with a blender, oven, and stovetop; a dining table; more storage space for sports equipment; a telescope (so he can experiment with deep space photography); a dirt bike on the back for off-road exploring; a full editing station with a desktop computer; solar panels on the roof; a 300-gallon gas tank; and a 200-gallon fresh water tank. Perhaps best of all, he’ll be able to fulfill that longstanding desire to stand upright in his vehicle.
Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.