In the Company of Bill Gates

January 11th, 2008

The Magazine wants one thing, Public Relations wants a different version of it, the Agency just wants it and in eight minutes total you have to satisfy all three. All I can say is, working with good PR people and some trusting editors is essential to pulling it off.

The client was L’Express, a French publication referred through an agency partnership–I believe in went Magazine-French Agency-American Agency-to me. The writer was in Vegas for the Computer Expo, Microsoft France was flying a PR person over, and I would meet the local team upon arrival.

The Job? Photograph Bill Gates looking like “Bill,” the guy next door. No assistant, no heavy lighting, just quick and natural.

To the Home of the Future we went where the writer got a tour and I checked out locations. I set up a couple of camera strobes on stands with wireless remote triggers to help bring up the light. I was allowed one setup as Bill was walking in, I would get a few frames during the 45 minute interview, and one setup as he was leaving.

Right on time, Bill walked in. I started shooting reportage-style; the light was poor, the furniture in the way, and basically I didn’t make a usable frame. Quickly, I directed him to the kitchen counter, “Sit down, look comfortable, chat up the writer.” I made frames for about three minutes and stopped before the PR people pulled him away.

During the interview I was asked to stop shooting; so I listened. The writer’s questions had already been screened, Bill had been briefed, and I watched as the writer pushed and pulled back in gentle waves of conversation. Bill tapped his foot and looked around as he spoke, often gesturing grandly while laughing.

What I remember is Bill talking about his day being full of malaria papers for his foundation, accessible because of the connectivity the internet offers. He went on to describe how he became interested in the issues of the poor; in the 90’s he visited Africa where he saw true poverty. To loosely paraphrase him, he said you can’t know it until you get out there and see it in person. For him it underscored a moral duty for the wealthy to aid the poor.

Shortly, PDA’s and watches were being checked. “One more question,” the French Microsoft PR person said. I got up, double checked my gear, powered up the strobes. Bill walked out, writer in tow asking questions. I sat Bill down in a chair: “Look this way, hold the Tablet PC, cross your legs, nice, nice, now look this way, great, thank you!” And off he went, the writer slipping in one more question as they walked down the hall.

To my surprise, one of the local Microsoft PR people asked “Did you get a picture of all of us together? My 11 year-old wants to see I really work with Bill.”

For all of its machinations, I’ve enjoyed every instance working with the Microsoft public relations; the staff are wonderfully personable, explicit in their needs and understanding of mine. And they’re real people too. Quite fun.

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