From documenting the plight of refugees and the war atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia to being Michael Jackson’s official photographer, John Isaac has a decorated career in photography. For 20 years, he worked in the UN and documented the harsh realities of war. One incident in particular, sparked his decision to transition from photographing world-changing conflicts to focusing on nature. On a project, he met a little boy who had escaped from Kigali as a rival tribe hacked his father to death. “He said I looked like his dad. When I responded and comforted him that I wish I had a son like him, he smiled and asked me if I could take him back with me to my home. I had to give him excuses why I could not do that and that the helicopter was waiting for me and that I had to leave. This haunted me when I came back to NY, I felt so helpless that left me with a breakdown. While recovering, I saw a sunflower in my neighbor’s backyard one morning, and a butterfly came and sat on it. That is when I decided to take photos of nature.”
Here is a short interview that we, at PhotoConcierge did with John Isaac, about his journey as a UN photographer, his upcoming project on the tigers of India and his insights on the ethics of wildlife photography.
PhotoConcierge: You have added many feathers to your cap. From working with celebrities the likes of Michael Jackson and Audrey Hepburn to documenting world-changing events, which are the milestones you treasure deeply?
John Isaac: Witnessing the independence of Namibia was one of the most exciting photo coverage in my entire career. To see the South African flag come down and the new Namibian flag go up at midnight was surely a lifetime thriller. Meeting and working with Audrey Hepburn taught me a lot about giving dignity to other human beings and to not take away their dignity. People like Michael Jackson taught me about giving to others. Mother Theresa taught me about the happiness that she gets from letting people die with dignity and to care about everyone’s welfare.
PhotoConcierge: Can you talk us through your upcoming project on the tigers of India? What is your project’s mission statement?
John Isaac: The ultimate end result that I would like to see is the survival of the tigers. They are without a doubt, the pride of India. Just imagine a beautiful species like tigers disappearing from existence is a disgrace to our society. Even if evolution takes place all over again, the certainty of the tigers coming into existence is not a sure deal.
PhotoConcierge: Conservation photography has become an important lexicon within the field of wildlife conservation. How do you think photography can mobilize tiger conservation in India or heighten peoples’ sensitivities towards endangered species?
John Isaac: Conservation photographers will have to be more dedicated to the wildlife and the environment. Sometimes, I find that many are in this game for their own benefit. Even some conservationists are in it just for the money. I have seen some of them start as serious conservationists and then it is all about making money. Some decide to start their own hotels and resorts in wildlife area. I am not saying it is wrong. But the point of interest shifts and we forget about the conservation.
PhotoConcierge: How has your experience photographing in Tiger reserves across India been so far? What in your opinion is lacking in the way these reserves are maintained? Is there scope for improvement?
John Isaac: It has been wonderful. Many are maintained very well. I feel that they should not charge high tariffs for foreigners. On the other hand I am happy that many Indians take advantage of this situation and visit the forests often and that is good news. I was told that Bandhavgarh has changed their policy. I have not been there in the last few years. Yes, there is always scope for improvements. Better toilet facilities in the parks, for instance
PhotoConcierge: How much time do you normally spend in learning about an animal’s characteristic traits and behavioral patterns before photographing it?
John Isaac: I did my Bachelor of Science in Chennai University majoring in zoology and my ancillary was Botany. So, I do know a little bit about animals and am interested in learning about their behavior. The time I spend in the forest is precious for me. Even when my primary interest is in covering the tigers, I am always intrigued by the birds and other animals in the forest. I see many photographers are only interested in the big cats and that is it. As the saying goes, “It is not the destination, it is the journey”. I just love being in the forest and documenting anything that interests me. I photograph trees as well.
PhotoConcierge: How do you think photographers must address the ethical dilemma between getting the shot and ensuring the welfare of an animal?
John Isaac: That is an absolute must. Getting the shot is secondary. I have seen in my photojournalism career, photographers senselessly trying to get the shot ignoring the suffering of living beings.
PhotoConcierge: Any advice to young and amateur photographers venturing into wildlife photography?
John Isaac: I would advise them to go for it. After all we have a good camera and lenses and there is Photoshop to help us along the way. Never listen to people who tell you that there is no scope for a wildlife photographer or any photographer. They said the same thing when I got into photography 47 years ago. I did not believe them. But I did believe in myself. So that is my advice. Believe in yourself and give photography your 100%. People equate success with money. That is not true. Yes, we do need money to survive but your happiness is what really counts when we talk about real success. I know that photography has kept me happy all these 47 years. That is why I have not quit. I worked for 30 years at the United Nations as a photojournalist and retired almost 20 years ago. I am 73 years old and I still pursue photography. I have a studio near where I live and I go there almost every day and do my printing and editing and post productions. I hope I will be lucky enough to do my photography until the day I die.
Visit John Isaac’s profile on PhotoConcierge to see his work.