Magazine Article


John Isaac: Around the World in Thirty Years

"Digital film" became critical to Isaac's digital documentation. "I only had four memory cards, each with one 1GB of space," he says. "Sometimes I would get carried away and take a lot of images in one shot. In half a day I would finish all four gigs! I'd have to go into the Jeep to download one or two gigs onto the laptop so I could reuse the memory cards. I'd average four to six gigs a day."

Isaac swears by Lexar Media cards when he's on the go. "The one brand I trust completely is Lexar," he says. "One time my jacket pocket dragged in the lake. I had two of my Lexar cards in there and was sure my images were gone. But they were all fine."

Isaac also made sure he was covered on the storage end. "With digital, you have to have space," he says. "On my last trip to Kashmir, I took two portable hard drives, a 50GB and an 80GB. The hard drives worked with my computer power; I just plugged directly into my laptop."

Isaac also brought his discontinued Olympus P200 printer so he could share photos with his often willing—and sometimes not so willing—subjects. "That printer saved my life in Africa. I made prints for some of the policemen there, who thought I was spying on one of the presidential palaces."

Kashmir's waterways provided plenty of photo ops for Isaac. Isaac traveled to Shizouka Prefecture in Japan to frolic in the mist with his Olympus E-1.

Digital imagery once helped soothe cultural misunderstandings in a Kashmir mosque. "I got carried away—during prayers I started taking pictures and got too close to the altar," he recalls. "One of the men stopped praying, hit me on the forehead, and said two words in English: 'No pictures!' The mullah [priest] intervened to help me. After the service, I said, 'Why don't you all come with me? I'll download the images and show them to you. If I took pictures you don't like, I'll erase them.' They were amazed I could do that and happy with what they saw, no longer concerned that I might use the images in a derogatory way."

A Walk on the Wild Side

While Isaac is not as well-known for his nature photography, it's become another facet of his varied photographic career, especially since retiring from the UN in 1998. Isaac takes a nonintrusive, respectful approach with his beastly subjects. "I don't like to disturb the animals," he says. "In India I can ride on the back of an elephant when I'm photographing and just blend into the jungle. There is a tribe of elephant trainers, and each person develops a relationship with an elephant from childhood. I was riding with one of these trainers, trying to photograph a tiger once. The tiger went into the bush, and I was quickly trying to switch to a longer lens, but I dropped it. The elephant trainer signaled to me not to worry, then signaled to our elephant with a stick. The elephant picked up my lens and gave it right back to me!"

In October 2003, Isaac traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, to try his hand at bird photography. "A friend had been trying to photograph these hummingbirds, but he never could. They flap their wings something like 55 times per second. I had asked Olympus if they'd use one of the images in their product brochure if I could nail this." Olympus gave Isaac the green light, so he ventured south.

"Bird photography taught me patience—birds don't come and wait for you, you wait for them!" he says. "While I sat there for three days, some would come right up to my face, hovering like a helicopter. I used the Olympus FL50 dedicated flash, and a PocketWizard remote-controlled flash trigger. I got 35 to 40 really sharp images.

Branching out has allowed Isaac to continue to derive enjoyment from photography since leaving the UN nearly seven years ago. "I take one day at a time," he says. "I don't want people to just call me a photojournalist—I want people to call me a street photographer. I want to photograph anything that interests me."

For more Isaac images, visit

Retrospective Exhibit at Concordia College

John Isaac had never exhibited his work in a gallery until Concordia College, in Bronxville, New York, created "The Odyssey of a Photojournalist: John Isaac, a 30-Year Retrospective." The exhibition, which showcasing some of Isaac’s most compelling work, runs through February 1, 2005. Call Concordia College at 914/337-9300 for more information.

John Isaac's Gear Box

Digital Cameras
Olympus E-1 and C-5060, with 11-22mm, 14-54mm, 50-200mm, 300mm, 1.4x converter, 50mm macro Olympus lenses

Olympus FL50 flash unit

Digital Darkroom
Epson Stylus Pro 2200 and 7600
Minolta DiMAGE Scan Multi Pro
Apple Mac G5, G4, and G4 PowerBook
Adobe Photoshop CS

Lexar 1GB, 2GB, and 4GB cards
Minolta flash meter V
Lowepro camera bags
Manfrotto Pro carbon fiber tripod