1000Words is a column featuring a Bloomberg News photographer and his or her insight on how they got the shot.
Photographer Daniel Acker is getting his bearings after his fourth year of covering the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting, a meeting like no other with the ‘Oracle of Omaha’ himself, Warren Buffett. — Jane Hwang
1000Words: This is such a great photo; one of the editors thought this was an optical illusion. How did you happen upon this situation? Is there a back story to this photo?
Daniel Acker: First and foremost, it’s a pleasure to be back on the 1000Words column.
This display was new to the Larson-Juhl booth this year and was a big hit. Every time I walked past it there was a line 10 people deep waiting to be photographed. After watching countless people come and go, Longgen Zhang, left, and Yedi Wang approached, and I got to work. I love her glasses, his hand resting on the frame, and their genuine enthusiasm for the moment. I purposely excluded the surrounding environment, preferring the way the framing forces the viewer to do a double take. Is this Warren Buffett in the flesh or his cardboard body double?
I began photographing the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in 2010, a meeting unlike any other that I’m aware of. It’s the physical manifestation of all things Warren Buffett, the billionaire chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Shareholders from around the world descend on Omaha, Nebraska, for this weekend of shareholder events and festivities. At the end of the day, the most important thing to nearly everyone is to meet him.
A big part of the event for me is the vendor area where various Berkshire-owned companies display their wares, particularly since the meeting itself is closed to cameras. Everyone in Omaha wants a piece of him, and getting your photograph with one, or all, of the life-size images displayed around the vendor floor is a rite of passage for seemingly every shareholder in attendance. All sorts of objects are adorned with images of him: T-shirts, work gloves, candy, socks, boxer shorts, ties, shoes, keychains, USB sticks, golf balls, coins, magnets, etc., the list of items is endless. Many are repeated each year, so the challenge is to make a unique picture in an environment that doesn’t change much from year to year.
1000Words: Do you have any more information on this couple? For example, when and how did they become shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway? Are they the millionaires next door?
DA: The couple, owners of B-shares purchased in 2011, are residents of Shanghai, China. Their daughter lives and works in Omaha, and they split their time between China and the U.S. They are big fans of Warren Buffett and are proud owners of Berkshire stock.
1000Words: Can you give us a flavor of what it’s like to cover what must be such a surreal event? What it’s like on the floor of this gathering?
DA: As I mentioned earlier, the actual meeting is closed to cameras, so this exhibitor area comprises 90 percent of the day’s coverage. At around 7 a.m., Buffett does a walk-through, visiting various booths to putt a golf ball, toss a newspaper, sing with cheerleaders, or play his ukulele for the media and a crowd of excited shareholders. The pack of media surrounding him during his journey is impressive, and thankfully I’ve paid my dues on stakeouts outside various Federal Court buildings over the years and can operate in this hectic and extremely physical environment of the “scrum.”
1000Words: You covered this last year, as well. Has anything changed — security, the shareholders, the swag, etc?
DA: I’d say the biggest change I’ve witnessed over the past few years has been the willingness of shareholders to put themselves in any situation necessary to get a picture with Buffett, who does not stop and pose for pictures. He has a cult-like following in the investor community, and at times shareholder admiration for him is palpable. Security is always pretty tight, but at the same time we have gotten to know his detail over the years, and they’re fairly accommodating. When the scrum is on the move, you’re always walking blindly backwards to keep pace in front of Buffett. His security keeps an eye on the upcoming garbage can or pole you’re about to unknowingly back into, and steers you around it. You have to get used to being manhandled in these situations, but that’s just part of the fun.
1000Words: How do you cope, stay focused and get the images you need and want?
DA: I think experience plays the largest role in situations like this. Having covered four meetings, I have a pretty good understanding about how this event unfolds, which is important because it follows an unwritten script. Knowing where he enters and exits the floor, which way he’ll walk from booth to booth, what his security detail looks like and being able to penetrate a wall of cameras and security to get clean pictures become routine. This allows me to move out of a purely reactionary position and start to see images coming together ahead of time. There are lots of bumps and near misses along the way, but if you keep after it, there is always a picture waiting for you; it’s too rich a situation.
Many times this doesn’t work out because the one consistent thing about Buffett is his unpredictability. Ultimately that’s what keeps me engaged and motivates me to continue searching for the next image. He’s only around for a short time, so you have to try to have fun while you can. At 8:30 a.m., the meeting starts, and the most important part of my day is behind me.
1000Words: Any advice on conversation starters/topics when speaking with one of the planet’s richest people?
DA: When all else fails, talk about the weather. Works every time.
Specs — NIKON D800; 70-200 f/2.8 @ 70mm; ISO: 4000; f2.8; 1/640
Daniel Acker is a contract photojournalist for Bloomberg News, based in rural Illinois outside Chicago. He covers agriculture, manufacturing, company and general business news in the Midwest. Acker was a Bloomberg News staff photographer in New York from 2000 to 2010.
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