F8 and Be There

An elephant handler gets goosed by an elephant on display in Dallas, Texas.
The story behind the photo.
Kevinv-BW-small1Years ago, as a brand new photojournalist who had graduated from the University of Texas, I was lucky and blessed to land a job at the Dallas Times Herald. At the time, DTH was considered one of the top major newspapers in the nation. DTH was in the midst of a roll in winning Pulitzer Prizes–all in photography! The photographic staff was chock-full of incredible talent who all had “the eye of the tiger”. Being the first photographer to ever be hired there directly out of college is an honor I cherish to this day, especially given the talent I was thrown in with and mentored by. In many ways, I look back and consider my time at the Dallas TImes Herald Newspaper worthy of receiving a doctorate in photography (if there were such a thing). That’s how much I learned from my photo editor and fellow photojournalists. As in any decent organization, the low man on the totem pole has to earn his way up, so me being the “new guy”, I was handed the chicken crap assignments and expected to bring back gourmet chicken soup. One thing I learned from shooting these kinds of assignments was “F8 AND BE THERE!” Which I learned translates to “WHEN YOU’RE LUCKY, BE READY!” These were wonderful days. I think all photojournalists would agree that the photojournalism age peaked between 1980 and 1985. Those were the days when newspaper editors valued photographers the most, and ironically, also when they enjoyed their largest profit margins in history.

One Saturday morning, amongst other lame assignments, there was one to go photograph the elephants being unloaded in downtown Dallas for the circus that was arriving in town. Unlike the oldtimer who would have simply run over, grabbed a quick shot and run back to the newspaper office, I was still low man on the totem pole, so I was trying to prove myself. I was quickly learning I was only as good as my last shot. As I drove over to where the elephants would be staged, I agonized over how in the world I would be able to photograph this subject in a unique and different way from the way so many others had already photographed elephants. Upon arrival, I immediately began looking for something unique, but was disappointed to find nothing that would pull on the heartstrings such as a kid in a wheelchair or an elderly gent watching the elephants. I tried every angle from jumping on tables to laying on the ground to get the shot. Then I noticed that the elephant handler was not a toothless old guy, but an attractive woman. So I thought, let me see if I can find a way to play off this beautiful blonde doing her job as an elephant handler. So I followed her up and down, photographing her with a tight telephoto lens, getting lots of great, cutesy type shots. Then I changed my lens to a 50. Since I had been shooting with a telephoto previously, I’d only been seeing from the waist or chest up. What can I say, I’m a guy! When I switched to the 50 mil lens, and could see her full body, I noticed something I’d been missing when shooting tighter with the 85mm…that as she walked by every elephant, each one threw out his trunk and goosed her in the rear-end as though trying to grab a peanut. So I dropped in behind her and photographed this beautiful blonde elephant handler being goosed by these “overly fresh” elephants. To this day, I’ve wondered what caused the elephants to goose her–did she sit on some chewing gum or something? This truly turned out to be a classic (and funny) lesson for me in “F8 AND BE THERE”.

Ultimately, the end result was the photo won numerous awards, the pat on the back from my photo editor and peers and it opened the door to receiving a dream assignment — spending a week on an aircraft carrier with fighter pilots. To this day, this image has been published all over the world and earned thousands of dollars in royalty fees.

Kevin Vandivier
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