Dare to document: Q&A with Bloomberg photographer Daniel Acker

September 18, 2017

Daniel Acker is a freelance photographer based in Illinois, where he covers a number of subjects central to Bloomberg’s business and financial coverage. Our team recently sat down with Daniel to discuss his career path, past and current projects, and his passion for photojournalism.

What has been your favorite story to cover for Bloomberg?
This is a question I’m asked quite often, and it’s extremely difficult to answer. My camera has accompanied me on many adventures, and although some journeys are short, and others have lasted days or weeks, they have all left an impression.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to spend a week on the North Slope of Alaska in Prudhoe Bay. I was there along with Bloomberg reporter Alex Nussbaum checking out oil operations in the area. It was February, and the temperature was well into negative territory. As challenging as those conditions can be, I could have stayed for weeks and never grown tired. The stark, snow-covered landscape was captivating, and early one morning while traveling on an ice-road over the Beaufort Sea I took a moment to just watch the taillights of the vehicle in front of me dance over the frost covered windshield separating us. It was only a moment, but it reminded me how fortunate I am to do this for a living. If it weren’t for my camera I simply wouldn’t have had access to that place. It’s a feeling don’t take for granted.

In contrast, a couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend the day at Dubuque Clamp Works in Dubuque, Iowa. The company is owned by Keith and Edna Clark, a husband and wife team producing what are widely regarded in woodworking circles as the best wooden hand-screw clamps money can buy. They only employ a few people and have managed to weather the challenges of cheaply made overseas products flooding the market. It was a beautiful summer day, the doors were open and a slight breeze blew through the shop. As we stood amongst machines that Keith had largely built by hand, we talked about life, politics, business, and everything in between. We wrapped up the day sitting on the shop floor, eating ice-cream sandwiches from a stash Edna keeps in a mini-fridge. A simple assignment, but one that reminded me take a moment to enjoy the small things in life, regardless of the outside pressures to the contrary.

The wide variety of subjects I’m assigned to photograph keep me thinking, growing as a human, and striving to produce the best possible images. Any job that touches on those areas gets added to my favorites list.

A snow covered road sits on the North Slope in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

An employee stacks an assembled wooden hand-screw clamp at the Dubuque Clamp Works facility in Dubuque, Iowa U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Dubuque Clamp Works has been operating in Dubuque, Iowa, for the last four decades. Today, the company turns away new orders, partly because so much of the supply chain it relies on has moved abroad. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

You were included in Bloomberg’s Best of 2016. What did it mean to be included in the selection of the strongest photos of the year?
I’ve been a part of the Bloomberg photo team in one capacity or another since June of 2000. I joined the team straight out of college. In fact, I drove a U-Haul truck from Rochester, New York where I attended RIT to Manhattan for my first interview. I illegally parked the truck on 63rd Street, changed into a suit in the back, took my shaving kit inside and finished getting ready! This was a Thursday, and I started on staff the following Monday. I worked on staff in NYC until 2010, when I relocated to the Midwest and began working on contract.

I mention this because in many ways Bloomberg has defined my professional career, and I’ve grown alongside the department as it matured from the early days of collecting corporate head shots, to the worldwide 24-7 news operation it is today. Being a part of the Best of 2016 is truly humbling. The quality of the imagery is remarkable, and somehow this group manages to improve every year without exception. It’s an honor to have my images displayed with others from around the world. It also motivates me to be the best photographer I can be, because if I’m not on that list, I’m not working hard enough.

Attendees cast shadows on a large U.S. flag as Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, not pictured, speaks during a town hall event in Hampton, New Hampshire, U.S., on Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. Christie, who faces the end of his campaign if he doesn’t finish well in New Hampshire, last night at the debate before the New Hampshire primary lit into Marco Rubio, accusing him of spouting a memorized 25-second speech over and over on the trail. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

You recently covered the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois for a story about the future of farming. What was the experience like?

Since my relocation to the Midwest in 2010 agriculture has been a recurring subject, and one that I enjoy greatly. The Farm Progress Show is the Detroit Auto Show of the agriculture world, and it is held in alternating years in Illinois and Iowa. I’ve covered many auto shows over the years, and this had a similar feeling. Manufacturer booths displaying the latest and greatest in farm tech, which on the tractor and implement side of things often means larger and more powerful tools. For example, one company had a field sprayer on display which blew me away. This machine sits on tall skinny tires and the cab can be raised and lowered to ensure the crops aren’t being run over as it moves through the field spraying fertilizer, weed control chemicals etc. There are retractable boom arms which extend left and right like wings. The larger the wings, the fewer times you have to cross a field to cover its entirety. This particular unit had a 132’ boom. Imagine driving through a field at 20 MPH with 60+ feet of boom on either side of you. It is a remarkable piece of equipment.

Generally speaking this is the trend in agriculture from a commercial grower standpoint. Everything continues to get larger, allowing farmers to work more ground with fewer people. From the days of the tenant farmer, each working 80 or 100 acre plots we’ve progressed to 3,000+ acre farm operations run by only a handful of people. Advances in machinery are what has made this transition possible, and it was on full display during the show.

Cobs of GMO corn sit on display in the Monsanto Co. booth during the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. The show, sponsored by Farm Progress Co. and owned by Penton Media, is billed as the largest outdoor farm show in the U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

 

An attendee stands near a display of grasses at the Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. The show, sponsored by Farm Progress Co. and owned by Penton Media, is billed as the largest outdoor farm show in the U.S. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

How much creative control do you have over the photo stories you are assigned? 
Bloomberg is a great organization in this regard. They expect photographers to adhere to the highest ethical standards, but also encourage visual experimentation and risk taking. As a photographer you can’t ask for more. I’ve never been told “this is the picture we expect to see” when discussing an upcoming assignment.

What skills have been key in getting you where you are today?
I think my biggest asset beyond some innate creativity is being able to converse and interact with a wide ranging and diverse group of subjects. As I touched upon earlier the stories I cover vary greatly. You have to be able to walk into a room of strangers, and engage with them. You don’t have the benefit of time in some cases, and quickly making them comfortable with you and your camera is crucial. You have to maintain objectivity and not confuse being friendly with being a friend.

My job is to document the world around me as I find it, not allow someone else’s viewpoint to shift that reality into what they see as a more favorable light. I’ll borrow from the words of a Bloomberg freelance colleague, Victor Blue. Vic is one of the most articulate and gifted photojournalists working today, and he summed it up in a recent interview better than I ever could. I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist is that you may not like the way you look in photographs or what you see in them, but you’ll never be able to say something didn’t happen that way. That it’s not true. That, at the end of the day, is what this job is all about.

What makes a great photo?
One of the greatest things about photography is the subjective nature of it. I’ve had many lively discussions with friends and colleagues about images and their “greatness.” We don’t always agree, but I cannot sidestep one crucial aspect for me personally, and that is objective truth. No matter how a photographer uses light, composition, and all the underlying tenants of photography in a general sense, if an image isn’t grounded in objective truth, it will never be great in my mind.

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