Imagine if the beach was your front yard, the stars were your roof, the coastal cliffs were your playground and complete strangers became your companions.
For most, this type of fantasy only exists in their wildest dreams. For photographer James Barkman, this is reality and the life he scored when he loaded up his Volkswagen van and hit the open road to explore parts unknown. Barkman first moved into his VW van two years ago and has been traveling the country ever since. Barkman, with his heart set on adventure and his camera lens aimed at endless possibility, has become famous for his stellar outdoor photos and willingness to try just about anything.
While Barkman says living on the road has taught him many useful skills on how to survive with only the necessities, he also says that traveling by van has instilled him with a new outlook on life, and helped him to let go of society’s harsh expectations and preconceived notions of what is “normal.” We tracked down the photo-snapping nomad to hear more stories from the road and beyond.
How did you decide to pack up your van to live and travel the country?
I moved into my van two years ago, traveled through the Northeast for a bit and have since driven across the country. I am currently cruising around the Northwest. Congested places and cities have always stressed me out, plus I wanted to live in the woods and be in areas where I could snowboard and surf all the time. I didn’t want to be someone that just talks about my dreams and goals, I want to be someone that actively pursues and implements them. I’ve always been someone that doesn’t want to live with fear and regret. I’d rather try and fail at something than play it safe and wonder what might have happened had I stepped out and taken a risk.
Tell me a little bit about your Volkswagen van, Melody Bark-van. How did you inherit her?
I’ve always owned and loved old broken down vehicles, especially Volkswagens. My first car was an ’84 VW diesel rabbit that was sitting in a barn for 15 years, and in high school my buddies and I used to troll Craigslist searching for old VW’s to restore or part out. After faithfully searching Craigslist for months, I found good ole Mel a few states away, hopped in my car and bought her on the spot. She broke down on the way home though, haha.
What is your favorite and least favorite thing about living and traveling in your van?
My favorite thing is that my mode of transportation is also my home. It contains everything I need and own, besides a shoebox of old photos and a pair or two of jeans in my parents attic. There is no way to describe the feeling of settling in for the night after a cold surf session, drying out by the wood stove, parked in a pine forest on a cliff by the ocean. My least favorite? Constantly breaking down on a cold and rainy day in the middle of nowhere, crawling underneath and getting covered in mud and grease only to bash my knuckles on a rusty bolt. It’s a love-hate relationship.
What are some things that you learned or experienced while living/traveling in your van that people may not expect?
I’ve learned a lot of weird little skills, such as where to find free water, coffee, paper towels, how to find a restroom really fast, stealth camping spots, etc. etc., haha! I’ve also learned a lot about life I suppose, such as what you need as opposed to what you don’t need, sounds cliché but it’s true. It is honestly mind blowing how many people make decisions and live according to what society says is “normal” without thinking twice about it. What the heck is normal anyway.
You are not only a world-traveler but also a talented photographer. How did you first get into photography?
I’ve always been more or less of an artist. All I really cared about in middle and high school was drawing and painting stuff, filming my buddies hucking flips off our secret cliff jumping spots, or making cheesy snowboarding edits on my parents Windows ’98 computer. Whether the homies were board-sliding a handrail for the first time or bombing hills at 50 mph, I wanted to document the experiences of myself and the people around me.
What do you feel influencers your photography work you the most?
I’ve always been so inspired by documentaries and photojournalism. National Geographic was and still is my favorite magazine and I used to look through every page. I really admire the work of Aaron Huey, Corey Arnold, Paul Nicklen, Mike Brodie, and other NatGeo photographers that have more of a documentary and photojournalistic approach. I would consider many of them to be my heroes, and one day hope to have a body of work that is even a fraction as meaningful and profound.
Aside from traveling and the outdoors, where else do you draw your inspiration from?
I’ve always been more or less of a thrill seeker, and nothing gets me more hyped than doing things that scare me. Whether it’s cliff jumping, driving fast, or dropping in on a big wave, I tend to get a little antsy if I’m not constantly pushing my limits. It’s weird, but I feel most alive and inspired when my heart is pounding or my knees are shaking.
Where has been one of your most memorable trips? Why?
A trip to Havasupai in Arizona has to be somewhere at the top. The Havasupai Reservation is part of the Grand Canyon and is quite literally an oasis in the desert. I was fortunate enough to accompany Chris Burkard on a project in the canyon. After hiking 13 miles in 107 degree weather with heavy packs full of gear, we did nothing but huck flips off perfect waterfalls into incredible aqua blue water for a week straight. 100% unforgettable.
You also worked with notorious outdoor photographer Chris Burkard. How did you two first meet and decide to explore the world together?
I worked with Chris as an intern and assistant/second shooter for a minute, so I was able to be a part of a number of rad projects. Chris is a great friend and somebody I admire in so many ways, and I’m very grateful to have learned from and worked alongside him.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Any new adventures, photo projects, etc.?
I’m planning a dual sport trip from Alaska to Patagonia, so that should be pretty crazy. I’m also working on some book projects and hopefully some collaborations with other artists. Excited for the future!
Lastly, if you could go back in time to before you packed up win your van and headed out, and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
It would be to choose to live without worry and stress. It’s amazing how easy it is to worry about everything, when in reality 99% of the time stress is just an empty threat. I believe that there’s a healthy level of fear to have, and balance, it’s what often drives and motivates us to push our limits and to get out of our comfort zone, but it’s safe to say that many people’s lives are driven and controlled by fear and worry.