Learning the Hard Way with Adventure Photographer Elijah Burton
Q&A with the Portland, OR-based surfer, mountain biker, and pilot on building community, cameras, and the joys of achieving in the face of failure
Corey Arnold, Elijah Burton
Photographer, commercial pilot, surfer, and all-around outdoor lover Elijah Burton isn’t worried about what’s difficult in life. In fact, he’s drawn to it. Living in the Pacific Northwest, most days outside require a little extra effort—or a lot. Five millimeter wetsuits, whiteout mountain conditions, wildfires. It’s beautiful, sure, but it ain’t easy. But as you’ll be reminded again later (and then again), finding success in the face of adversity is a rare and hard-to-match feeling. Now build a community around this life, and you’re approaching what Burton is after, too.
Growing up outside Philadelphia in New Jersey, Burton initially found community in skateboarding and riding BMX. He’d visit the Jersey Shore with family each summer but daily life and its surroundings were a far cry from what’s now right in his backyard. At the time, conventional outdoor activities like hiking and sleeping under the stars were more a source of amusement than aspiration. “We would make fun of my neighbors for going camping,” says Burton. “We were like, These people are just like the Flanders. It's so weird.” But once in Virginia for college, a friend introduced him to fishing, and another hiking. A couple years later a job opportunity as a commercial pilot based in Portland, Oregon completed the puzzle, opening up a whole new world of outdoor activities to explore and embrace.
Now nearly a decade out west, Burton has built a home among nature—and is building a community of fellow Black outdoorsits to connect to and adventure with. His passions of film photography, surfing, and aviation continue to take him to new places. To learn more about his interests and experiences (and of course, what his favorite film camera is) we recently caught up with Burton over the phone. __
Let’s get right into it. What was your first camera? What’s your current go-to camera? And what’s your dream camera?
The first camera was a Canon AE-1 Program, a little 35mm camera I got from a friend. It was my dad's camera and he gave it to her because she was really into photography and was kind of like an adopted sister in my family. But she already had [a camera] so she gave it to me and I just kind of dove off a cliff, just fully into photography.
Currently, my favorite camera is my Leica M6. I remember before I got it being like, What the heck, man, this whole Leica thing is stupid—it's such a pretentious thing. And then I started diving into it, and now that I've been shooting with it for three or four years, it’s worth every penny. It just has this way of having you interact with the world differently… I can't explain.
Second to that is my Mamiya C330. That's my medium format portrait camera. It's just special because a friend gave it to me. It just takes such good pictures and it also has a way of interacting—people get confused by the twin-lens reflex and the photos are just so crispy.
Then the dream camera, that's a hard one. If we're in the dream world, then I'll take an M11 any day. With a really nice, overpriced Leica lens on it too.
Surfing, skating, fly fishing, and film photography all take years of determination and physical and mental trial and error to become even minimally proficient. What about this brutal process are you drawn to?
I think I'm just drawn to difficult things, because they're the most rewarding. It's not satisfying unless it’s hard. And I think I learned that early through skateboarding. You have to really be determined—if you want to do a kickflip, you just have to go out in the driveway and hurt yourself over and over again. Twist your ankle. There's just so much failure involved that when you do have those little moments of success, there's no better feeling than overcoming something like that.
When I went to Virginia and I started fishing—the first thing to get me really into the outdoors—for catfish and it was just too easy. I wasn't satisfied. Then I ended up getting a fly rod and being like, Man, this is hard! But that first fish you land on a fly rod, you're hooked. Because you had to go through something to get it.
Surfing has been that way for me. Film photography has too. Even in aviation, there's always those harder airplanes to fly. I haven't gotten there yet, but eventually will.
In a place like Oregon that’s geologically diverse but demographically homogeneous, how has your experience been finding community and establishing a home base?
When I showed up first and I didn't know anybody—I didn't have any family out here—it was hard to connect because there's always that piece of, Oh, you're just a little bit different. And even if it's unsaid, unspoken, it can still be a little bit difficult to find deep connections with people. Thankfully when you lean into a hobby or an activity that can bridge the gap. Some of my closest friends, we all share a commonality in a hobby. And that has brought us together, even if we're demographically different.
And things have gotten better in the last year or two where I found my friends Kenn and Adam. Adam [Chechire Edwards] is an arborist by trade, but is a pro kayaker and a photographer and is African American and has a really rad story. Then my buddy Kenny [Hamlett], he's a filmmaker full time and though he mainly started rock climbing has now transitioned into surfing and snowboarding and mountain biking. And you know, we're like the only brown people out there, so those are like my brothers now. And we found each other through liking the outdoors and also being drawn to cameras.
Growing up, can you remember any Black athletes or photographers that inspired you to go deeper into action sports and the outdoors?
Yeah, Selema [Masekela] was huge. Growing up watching X-Games, he was one of the first faces and voices that I would see. And then there was Stevie Williams, he was a rad skater. And now that I've gotten older, Ray Barbee, man, he is the freaking GOAT. Also a Leica head, too. And film photography-wise, he is just an artisan. The more I learned about him, the more he represents everything that skateboarding does to a person—it just causes you to really want to learn new stuff all the time and just get out and just try things for the sake of trying them because it's creative and it's an outlet. In the future I hope to leave an impact on something like they've left an impact on me.
Have you thought about how you might make such an impact yourself in the future?
I have this big dream of building a kind of camp where kids could come and gain exposure to different career paths than they would have otherwise. I would have homies come out and teach kids—like, [Field Mag] would come out and show kids how to make a publication. Or Ben Moon would show a kid how to make a film. I would have an airplane and teach aviation. And then we'd go surfing and ride mountain bikes.
It would be cool to expose kids and other people who would never have the opportunity to do things like that because they've shaped my life so much. Skating, surfing, flying, and these things do something so much deeper to you and can really set you up for success. I think it would just be sick to use that as a way to give back and maybe change people's lives.
Who are some other photographers that are inspiring you right now?
Eric Arce, too. I don't know him personally but he's grinding super hard and I love it. His tag is @pedalhomie and he shoots a lot in the mountain bike world. And there's Adam Kachman, he's a good friend. We just did a shoot for Patagonia together. And Trevor Lately, he’s definitely one creative I want to shout out.
Back to gear: What’s your favorite boot for knocking around the outdoors in?
Last up, open mic. Got any shout outs or final thoughts you’d like to share?
I’d like to express gratitude to the homies, to the community, and different brands for putting me on and being big supporters. It still blows my mind that we are even having this conversation over my photography.