As a young man in 1968, John Isaac moved to New York from his native India to pursue the dream of becoming a folksinger. One thing led to another, and he began working for the United Nations — first as a messenger, then as a darkroom technician and finally as a highly accomplished photojournalist. During his career with the UN, he became chief of the Photo Unit and traveled to over 100 countries in 20 years.
However, the stress of photographing death and war-torn countries took its toll. After covering the Rwanda genocide in 1994, Isaac fell into a depression and quit photography. While he was on a six-week medical leave, he saw a butterfly sitting on a sunflower in his neighbor’s backyard. He took a whole roll of photographs of the butterfly and the sunflower, and his passion for photography was rekindled. In 1998, Isaac took early retirement at age 55. Although he once documented the darkness of the human world, he transitioned to celebrating nature and the brighter side of humanity, devoting himself to photographing beauty. He continues to travel widely but also does a lot of photography close to home.
Eventually, Isaac switched from film to digital photography. He constantly reinvents his photographic style and remains active in the imaging world. He served as a spokesperson and professional photographer in the Olympus Visionary program, taught for Maine Media Workshops and Missouri Photo Workshops, acted as a beta tester and book project contributor for Adobe, and became a sponsored photographer for Lexar Media, Lowepro and X-Rite products. He is also very much a humanitarian in his work with UNICEF, promoting the survival, protection and development of children worldwide.
This interview was conducted via email in June 2016.
Lynne Eodice: I read that you initially moved to New York with the dream of becoming a folksinger. Did you perform as a musician here in the U.S.?
John Isaac: Yes, I did perform on the streets. Also I was in a show and sang at the Town Hall. I appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour on CBS television.
LE: How did you first become involved with the United Nations?
JI: A lady who worked at the United Nations asked me if I would audition for the UN choir, since she liked my baritone voice. At the time, I was worried because my visitor’s visa was set to expire. I got the part, and she got me a job as a messenger. Then I entered a photo contest and won the grand prize. The chief of the UN Photo Unit asked me if I would like to join the photo section and work as a darkroom technician. So I did.
LE: What sparked your initial interest in photography? Did you get any formal training?
JI: When I was in college in India, I studied zoology. I took watercolor lessons in the evenings at the Madras School of Art. When I started to take photos, I had a natural inclination towards photography.
Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Fall 2016 / Vol. 38 / No. 4