Alex Burrell - Ex-Royal Marine & Crossfit Gym Owner

We catch up with Urban Jack Champion Alex Burrell. Published photographer, Ex-Royal Marine, & Crossfit Gym Owner.

Alex, although we know each other well, introduce yourself to those who don’t.

My name is Alex Burrell and I co-own and run a small business. It’s a gym called Wildcard Strength & Conditioning, in Coventry.

We wanted to sit down and ask about you and your story as its quite unusual. Published photographer, Royal Marine Commando, Gym Owner. How does that journey start?

Yeah I guess it’s fairly unusual. The passion for most of my life has been skateboarding. Through skate culture and magazines I fell in love with photography. The act of trying to perfectly catch a skateboarding trick in a photograph just seemed really cool to me. To cut a long story short, after studying photography at university in Sheffield I realised making money in the skate industry was a struggle. This left me unsure of where to go with my life. I think I saw an advert for the Royal Marines and thought that looks cool, so just kinda went with it and a couple of years later I was a Royal Marines Commando. I then left the Marines under less than ideal circumstances, but it led me onto opening a gym with a friend and former Royal Marine. 

Alex Burrell Skateboard Sheffield
(Above, Alex Skateboarding in Sheffield, FS 50-50, 2010)

What was it that first got you into photography?
When I started skateboarding I would buy issues of Sidewalk Magazine and Document Magazine. I always found it amazing how the photographers could make a complicated trick look so perfect with a single photograph. To the extent that just by looking at a one image, you knew what trick was being performed. I then had a family friend donate me an old SLR and I began shooting photographs of my mates doing their best tricks.

(Above, one of Alex's favourites)

Where did you have published work?
I had the majority of my work published in Sidewalk Magazine and Kingpin Magazine. Think I had some front covers with each so that was pretty cool.

Mark Baines Kingpin Magazine Cover shot by Alex Burrell
(Above & Below, Sheffield's Mark Baines on the cover of Sidewalk and Kingpin, shot by Alex)
Mark Baines Sidewalk Magazine Cover shot by Alex Burrell  

So why the move away from Photography after University?
Sounds lame, but it was more a financial decision at first. I realised I had to work and pay bills, and I was struggling to do that with photography. Especially because I chose to carry on shooting on film, everything became very expensive and I really couldn’t afford to carry on. Then I guess I just got caught up in other things, the idea of joining the Royal Marines popped into my head and that was my sole focus until it became a reality.

I knew you were training (gym, powerlifting before the marines), was that for fun or prep for your next step?
I started training with some other skaters at first, Nathan Morris, Craig Wolsey, Joe Marks and some others. It was more just for fun and just to have something different to focus on really. But once I thought of joining the Royal Marines my training stepped up a level. I ended up training 3 times a day for a year or so and was pretty much in peak physical shape.

Nathan Black and Alex Burrell before a Wild Card Gym Event
(Above, Nathan Black and Alex before a Wild Card Gym Event)

What was it about the Marines that interested you? 
The Royal Marines has always been advertised as the UK’s elite fighting force that you can join from being a civilian. The slogan on the adverts at the time was “99.9% need not apply”, hook, line and sinker, that just made me want to apply even more. My personality has always been to try and do the best at whatever I choose to do, so if I was going to join the military, it had to be the hardest route possible. It’s the longest and toughest basic military training course in the world, at 32 weeks long, with a huge failure rate. So the challenge of passing the course was also a driving factor, as I can’t stand to fail.

Alex before his Marine Endurance Race
(Above, Left, Alex before his Royal Marines endurance course, a few days before he received the coveted Green Beret.) 
How much of a shock to the system was it from your life before? 
The training itself was a huge shock. I knew I’d have to do what I was told, when I was told as fast as I could all day everyday. So that was less of a shock just because I kinda knew what to expect. I think I averaged about 3-4 hours sleep a night for almost a year. With all the physical and mental training, I was just exhausted. But it’s all there for a good reason because things will only get harder in a war zone. Once I got to a fighting unit, for me it was 40 Commando, things became a lot more chilled out again. You’re still in the military so there are rules, but it’s a lot more relaxed most of the time.

Was it difficult in the marines? 
It definitely had its moments. During peacetime there isn’t much to do, so you can have days, weeks and months filled with pointless and mundane tasks. That gets frustrating very fast. My final deployment was pretty tough and will be something that will stick with me for the rest of my life. To cut a long story short, we were a 5 man team deployed on a rescue vessel to the sea between Turkey and Greece just as the “Migrant Crisis” started. That was a very busy deployment for all 5 of us, as well as the ships crew. We all saw some of the best and the some of the worst in humanity over that time. I have been left with lasting scars mentally after some of the horrific things we had to deal with out there. In the end, that was why I was forced to leave the Marines.
Alex Burrell Aegean Sea Royal Marine
(Above, right of centre, Alex spends Christmas 2015 on deployment)

I remember seeing a great photo of you and Prince Harry how did that come about?
After my final deployment I had some issues upon returning home. My stress levels were through the roof and I just couldn’t switch off. I was put into a rehab troop along with another friend who was on the same deployment. This just gave me time to decompress and think about everything. While I was there, I was put in touch with a Charity called The Not Forgotten Association. They have been amazing and supportive throughout. They host a summer Garden Party at Buckingham palace every year and I was chosen to meet Prince Harry, so that was a cool experience.

Alex Burrell meeting Prince Harry
(Above, Alex meets Prince Harry at The Not Forgotten Association Garden Party at Buckingham Palace)
Why did you decide to leave?  
Basically, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress from my final deployment to the Aegean Sea. It’s not something I thought would ever happen to me but it did. I guess the mind can only take so much. I was essentially given the options of staying in the Marines and working in a role that would suit my needs, or leaving the service all together. I chose to leave as I felt staying in would just increase my likelihood of a relapse.

And then the move to open a gym with your business partner, I knew you were into powerlifting, but this seemed a bold move?
Yeah I think like anything there will always be a risk involved. But training is something we’re both passionate about, so it seemed like the right thing to do. At the moment everything is on the up and people seem to be really enjoying it, so I guess we just need to keep working hard and hopefully it’ll pay off.
Alex Burrell British Powerlifting Event
(Above, Alex competing at a British Power-lifting Event)
Did you not think about moving back into photography?
I did briefly, but I think I’ll always get more enjoyment from it if I keep photography as a hobby rather than a job.

How does the Wildcard work, is it purely power lifting, or can anyone rock up?
So first and foremost, it’s a CrossFit gym. We run classes throughout the day, 7 days a week. We have classes such as CrossFit, Powerlifting, Functional Bodybuilding and more. Anyone is able to take part, no matter what their abilities, we cater for everyone. We also have the gym open for people not interested in doing classes, so they’re able to just get their head down and focus on their own training.
Wildcard Gym
(Above, Wildcard Gym)

Where do you see Wildcard going from here, and is this your permanent position now?
Yeah I’m in there 6-7 days a week taking classes and trying to get my own training in whenever possible. We want Wildcard to grow, so hopefully start opening more gyms around the country and growing the brand as much as possible really.

So whats for the future?

First and foremost Wildcard in Coventry is our flagship business and we want that to grow as much as possible. But looking forward, I think the plans are really to try and open a second place and try to build that up alongside our first gym. Then if all goes well you never know... I’d love to be able to have a handful of Wildcard gyms successfully running around the UK. But at the end of the day, if I can take a wage and cover my bills by doing something I love, I really can’t ask for anything more. 

That sounds great Alex, thanks again for the time, and best of luck for the future!