Magazine Article


John Isaac: Around the World in Thirty Years

This image was shot with the Olympus E-1 digital SLR with a 50-200mm lens and an FL50 flash. Hummingbirds are 3 inches in length and flap their wings 55 times a second.

A look at three decades of John Isaac's photojournalistic imagery and his place within the ever-changing digital landscape.

John Isaac has stared into the barrels of multiple machine guns trained on him in Lebanon. He was attacked in 1992 by a soldier patrolling the Sarajevo border during the Balkan conflict. And on March 21, 1990, as the citizens of Namibia hailed their long-awaited independence from South Africa, he was there to capture the celebration as the South African flag came down and the Namibian flag went up.

Having spent nearly 30 years with the United Nations, many as chief of the UN's Photo Unit, Isaac has journeyed to over 100 countries and garnered numerous awards for his documentation of diverse cultures, flora, and fauna. And despite more than a few frightening incidents along the way, Isaac claims he's no hero or reckless risk-taker. He just wants to tell the story of where he's been and the people he's met.

"I want to capture the essence of someone's life," he says. "Photography is really an illusion. In Tamil, my mother tongue, when you translate the word 'photography,' it means 'smoky image capture.' So I've always looked at photography as a form of magic, an illusion, like a rainbow."

Isaac tracked this tiger for two days. He was able to get this shot while the cat slept in a bush. Shot with the Olympus E-1 and a 300mm lens. Isaac captured this image for the 1996 book Coorg: The Land of the Kodavas. Isaac often waits until after sunset to capture the afterglow. This shot of Dal Lake in Kashmir was shot with the Olympus E-1 and a 300mm lens.

On Photojournalism's Front Lines

Over the years, Isaac has learned invaluable lessons that have helped him establish rapport with the people he encounters. "I learned humility from three people: my mother, who taught me to be humble from an early age; Mother Teresa; and Audrey Hepburn, whom I worked with for eight years. She never flaunted her stardom."

Honesty and his ability to truly listen to his subjects' stories has served Isaac well. "In 1979, I was in Southeast Asia documenting the Vietnamese boatpeople," he says. "A boy who was around 12 years old asked me how long it took for me to get there. When I told him it had taken me about 35 hours, he asked, 'Do you think you can tell my story, about us being in the ocean for 30 days, starving, in just a half-hour?' He told me other photographers had come to his island, run around shooting for half an hour, and then left. I stayed on that island for two days, sleeping with them in their hut."

Despite this sensitivity to other cultures, Isaac has had his share of close calls—par for the course for a living-on-the-edge photojournalist. "My very first assignment was in 1978 in South Lebanon," he recalls. "I went to document the Israeli/Lebanon conflict and the plight of the Palestinians. When I went where [Yasser] Arafat was in hiding, they blindfolded me and put me in a Jeep. When I got out of the Jeep, I started taking pictures of everything. Suddenly, one of the team members said, 'John, if I were you, I wouldn't do that.' When I looked up at the building in front of me I saw three or four Palestinians in every window, with machine guns pointed right at me."

When Isaac was in Bosnia in 1992 for UNICEF, the Indian-born Isaac got into a skirmish with a Christian soldier. "I was crossing the border between Pale and Sarajevo," he says, "and a Serbian soldier almost put a knife in my back, maybe because I had a beard and looked somewhat Middle Eastern. He grabbed me by my hair, kicked me on my shin, and told me to say I wasn't a Muslim bastard, which I wouldn't say. Luckily, someone came to diffuse the situation."

One of Isaac's most beloved photojournalistic memories recalls a more festive occasion: Namibia's independence from South Africa in 1990. "I was in the middle of a country just being born. It's one of the greatest privileges I've ever had."

Capturing Kashmir

Isaac has made a full digital transition, eschewing his film cameras for a 100 percent digital setup. While his first all-digital assignment was done as part of the "Day in the Life of Africa" project two years ago using the Olympus E-20, it was Isaac's multiple journeys to the Himalayan paradise of Kashmir over the past 12 months that have helped him perfect his digital skills. "If there is a Shangri-La, Kashmir is it," Isaac says. "I wanted to show the beauty of the place and the people."

Isaac ventured into this remote region on the northern borders of India and Pakistan five times over the past year, immersing himself in the colorful culture and peace-loving people, most of whom practice the mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism.

Capturing colorful cultures and interesting people from around the world has been Isaac's photographic mission for more than 30 years.

"Sufism is probably one of the greatest philosophical concepts of our time," he says. "They believe in all aspects of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism. They tie music and rhythms into everyday routines. When they say 'Inshaallah,' which means 'God willing,' they mean it. They really want God to guide every little move they make. Somehow this philosophical view gave me insight into my photography."

Isaac brought along two Olympus E-1s to cover the fishermen and agricultural scenery of Kashmir. Of course, relying on digital technology instead of film presented its own challenges on the road. "I couldn't find electricity 24 hours a day, so I had to time myself, charge all my batteries," says Isaac. "I brought three batteries for my Mac G4 PowerBook and three for my cameras. I would charge everything when I could. I always had at least one fully charged backup."

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