About John Isaac
Chief photographer at the United Nations for many years, John Isaac came to the U.S. from South India forty years ago. But he still has a special place in his heart for the tigers of his native land, particularly as their numbers dwindle catastrophically.
Perhaps what may surprise you most at our upcoming meeting on February 20th is how easy it is to get to know John Isaac. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise as much of John’s career has been about photojournalistic efforts where he had to really immerse with subjects of all walks of life; however, with so much fame, it’s sometimes easy to forget the character and heart inside the individual. I first met John through the ArtsQuest InVision festival. Upon being introduced to him, I immediately felt I was with a long lost friend. He’s really a people person!
To prep you for our meeting, I’ve look at a few past articles on John and would like to provide excerpts. Please recognize that some of this material, if not all, is copyright of others.
From: The Photographic Chain: Five minutes with John Isaac, an interview with Kike Calvo, some questions posed to John and his replies:
My dreams is… to be a better human being by evolving each day. Helping myself from all the lessons I have learned about life during my journey as a photojournalist. To be a better photographer each day, since I am learning new lessons every day in photography.
The biggest lesson in my career… Not to take away some one’s dignity by my actions, particularly with my photographs. Three people that I knew well and worked with influenced me on this subject. My mother, Audrey Hepburn and Mother Teresa. They all emphasized abut human dignity. I am a human first, and then only a photographer. While I was covering the Ethiopian draught in 1984, I saw a woman who delivered he baby by the roadside and the baby’s umbilical chord still attached to her. My reaction was to cover her with her clothes and call the doctor and nurse who were in the nearly camp. A TV crew had seen this and went to their jeep to get the camera and film her in the state she was lying on the road naked. The camera man was so upset that I had clothed her and almost punched me for ruining his photo. During the same trip, a woman asked me to hold her dying baby in my hand. Since all her children died one by one in her hand. She said please save me from the disgrace of having my last child in my hands. So, I held the baby and when the baby died, she left with out saying anything. I had to do the burial ritual for this little baby myself with the help of my driver and translator.
The moment I will never forget… In 1988 I was in Ehiopia doing a story on the poorest people who were garbage sifters, who collected garbage and recycled. I was photographing this old lady who was blind in one eye and lived alone in a shack made of tin. I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel since at that time, Ethiopia was under a lot of unrest and a revolution was going on. Asmara was still part of Ethiopia. Eritria was not formed yet. My helicopter was waiting to take me to Addis Ababa where I was staying. There was a curfew after 6PM. This lady wanted me to stay a little longer since she kept saying to me and my interpreter that I cannot leave until she gave me something to take with me.She was actually waiting of her only possession, a hen, to lay an egg. Finally she gave me that egg and asked me to take it to the hotel and eat it. Giving is the greatest gift. This lady taught me that. When I got back to the hotel, I told the cook to boil that egg for me for my breakfast the next morning. He laughed and said “Just an egg. We have eggs here. Why is this so special?” I will never forget that encounter as long as I live.
Back to John’s love of tigers – TIGERS, The following words are by John Isaac with edits by James Morrissey
I’ve been going to India to photograph the tigers for the past 20 years. In the last two years, I have decided to put my concerns for their existence into a book. It is my hope that people will realize how desperate their situation is, and that change may occur.
The latest figure for the number of tigers left in India, where over half the world’s tiger population lives, is about 1,400. This is according to a 2008 census done by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. Many conservationists dispute this figure and say the reality is that less than 800 tigers are left in the wild. In January 2010, the World Wildlife Fund placed the tiger on its list of “10 Species to Watch” and launched a Year of the Tiger campaign to coincide with the Chinese year of the tiger, which started last February.
India has many national parks set aside for its tigers, but I’ve been concentrating on two – Ranthambore, in Rajasthan and Bandhavgarh, in Madhya Pradesh. No matter how many times I’ve been lucky enough to “shoot” a tiger, it is always a thrill. It is something that I never can quite get over the feeling of.
The first jeep ride of the day is in the early morning, usually leaving the lodge at 5 a.m. When working in the field, the days can be incredibly long and exhausting. I believe that much of my continued success has been as a result of my work with Olympus cameras. The Four Thirds system is perfect for me for several reasons. The first has to do with size and weight. As you may know, the 4/3 System lenses show an equivalent field of view that is 2x the size of a full frame (35 mm) camera. When I use a 300 mm 2.8 lens it is actually equivalent to a 600 mm 2.8 lens in a full-frame camera. Olympus also has image stabilization built in the body of the E-3 cameras that is a big help. This way I avoid having to lug around a cumbersome tripod, and believe me, these days I don’t even have to take a monopod. Being able to shoot handheld is a huge advantage. I know that I am an Olympus Visionary and that my opinion can be seen as biased, however, I would not say it if I did not absolutely believe it was true.
And finally, a little on John and birds – A close friend of John’s Russell Hart, Former Editor of American Photo Magazine shared some more background on John and on John’s passion for birding:
Between visits to photograph India’s big cats (the subject of an upcoming monograph) at India’s National Parks, Isaac also spends a lot of time photographing birds—perhaps his other favorite creature.
It’s not as if Isaac has had a long career in wildlife photography. Until he left the United Nations in the late 1990s, he was essentially a photojournalist. Decades of documenting human degradation, culminating in the Rwandan genocide, finally burned him out—and for the past dozen years the wild creatures of the world have helped him rise from those ashes like that famous bird, the Phoenix.
Indeed, as a wildlife photographer Isaac has the patience of a bird searching for food, waiting for hours if not days to capture his subjects just the way he thinks they should be seen. Other photographers often come and go as Isaac stakes out a wildlife subject, too hurried to wait for just the right moment. And as you’ll see from the photographs in this portfolio of Isaac’s bird imagery, the right moment is often what makes his pictures great.
The other part of the equation, though, is technique. Some photographers refuse to believe that Isaac gets his extraordinary images with an Olympus DSLR rather than a Canon or a Nikon—yet they themselves would tell you that it’s photographers who make photographs, not cameras. The good ones understand both the possibilities and the limitations of photography’s tools, from the ungainliness of super-telephoto lenses to the complexities of Photoshop.
We hope these insights give you a hint of the man and his work. Please join us on February 20th to meet and hear John Isaac present.
Lehigh Valley Photographry Club Monthly Meeting – Feb. 20, 2014, 7pm, Banana Factory in Bethlehem. Free for members, $10 for non-members.