Award-winning United Nations photojournalist and nature photographer John Isaac has captured thousands of dramatic images of our world at its best and its worst. Born in Madras, India, he moved to the United States in 1968 and began a 30-year career with the United Nations. Since 1998, he has focused on nature photography and on documenting the lives of people living in Kashmir, the disputed border area between India and Pakistan.
His Kashmir images are the subject of his next book, The Vale of Kashmir, which will be released by WW Norton.
Q What did you like most and least about being a photojournalist for the United Nations?
A What I liked most about being a photojournalist for the UN was being a witness and reporting situations truthfully. My least favorite aspect was seeing horrible situations like the aftermath of war and human suffering.
Q How did you gain permission to photograph people in countries where they are unfamiliar with or fearful of photography?
A Most of the time, I just used my instincts and took my photos without being too obvious. I used caution and made my subjects relax before I started to point the camera.
Q How did traveling to more than 100 countries affect you as a person, world citizen, photographer?
A I have learned to love humanity without prejudice. I have learned that all our needs and wants are the same.
Q What would you say are the high points of your photojournalism years?
A Witnessing the Independence of Namibia in 1991 was the highpoint of my career. Being present to see the South African flag come down and the new Namibian flag go up was an amazing sight.
Q What moved you to switch to nature photography?
A Covering Bosnia and Rwanda back to back in 1994 had a tremendous impact on my life. I almost quit photography for good. But getting a taste of photographing nature soon afterward was most fortunate. I still keep up with my photojournalism and I produce stories for magazines. The Kashmir book project was a combination of both.
Q Compare and contrast photojournalism with your new focus, capturing nature?
A Photojournalism took a toll on my emotions when covering sad stories. Nature is usually pure joy, except when I have to deal with destructive environmental issues.
Q From your experience, what would you consider one or two of the best general tips for capturing dramatic nature images?
A The right kind of light is very important. Early mornings and late evenings give you wonderful results for nature photography. When it comes to animals or birds, one has to have a lot of patience.
Q Can you explain the Olympus Image Stabilization system and how it helps you capture your images?
A There are actually two stabilization modes. The first one controls the x and y axes, which is very useful when you work with slow shutter speeds. I can go as low as 1/4 second hand-holding the camera and still get sharp images. The second mode controls only the vertical axis, so when you pan the photo you get a beautiful image of a sharp moving subject with a blurry background.
Q Have you had any mentors in your career?
A Yes. When I was about 26, working at the UN as a washer/dryer in the Photo Unit, there was a gentleman named Ralph Pickwick, a darkroom technician, a printer. Every week I showed him my work. He taught me how to burn and dodge and crop. While he was still there, I became a darkroom printer just like him. Later I was promoted to photographer professional grade, then photo editor, then I became chief of the photo unit. Ralph gave me what no one ever gave me in my life. Even when I do things such as layers and digital manipulation, all the ideas are what he planted in my head 35 years ago. He was an amazing man.
Q Was it difficult for you to make the transition from film to digital?
A Ten years ago, when I left the UN, I said, ‘Catch me dead with a digital camera, catch me dead doing digital printing. But I have completely changed my view since then. With digital capture, retouching, and printing, I’m in paradise. I can do it all in one little room, and there are no chemical smells or mixing. It’s made my life very, very easy. As I told RIT students earlier this year, ‘I could say otherwise, but I’d be lying to you. Digital photography is your future. If you want to be a freelance photographer, work in a company as a photographer, or be a fine art photographer you have to know digital photography.’ Digital printing is amazing.” (via)