Photography: A Journey and a Way of Life
This article was originally published in January 2012.
Growing up in India, I never imagined that one day, I would become a photographer. I had other aspirations. I took a part-time course in watercolour painting at what was then known as the Madras School of Arts.
My early dream was to be a painter, and also a singer. I had always been interested in rock and folk singers from the US and so in 1968, I emigrated to New York.
My official photography career started as a darkroom technician in 1972 at the United Nations in New York after winning an international photo contest. My first job was to wash and dry prints and lasted for about six months. Afterwards, I was trained as a printer and worked as both a colour and black and white printer for six years before I actually became an official photographer for the UN. It was hard, labourious work, but it helped me to understand the complexities of how to make good prints. The training I got from Master Printers like Ansel Adams and George Tice also helped me further my skills. I have adapted some of the same techniques to now make digital prints.
In 1978, after I won a major award at Photokina in Germany, I was asked by the UN to go on an overseas assignment. Off I went on a six-week assignment to cover the Israel/Lebanon conflict. For the next 20 years, until I retired as chief of the Photo Unit in 1998, I travelled to over 100 countries documenting the ravages of war and famine in different parts of the world.
My photojournalism career taught me a major lesson—never take away a person’s dignity. If I thought taking someone’s picture would take away that person’s dignity, I didn’t take the shot. For example, when I was sent to cover the boat people of Southeast Asia in 1979, I came across a young girl who had been raped by pirates several times in the boat she was in. Instead of photographing her, I contacted some Catholic nuns who came and rescued her.
Hearing the story later, some people criticised me for doing that, saying it wasn’t my job to make that decision but instead to publicise the event. I didn’t agree with them then and I don’t agree with them now. Photojournalism also taught me about sharing someone’s suffering. While covering the famine in Ethiopia, a woman wrapped in a shroud asked me if I could save her from the disgrace of her last child dying in her hand. She wanted me to hold her child and I did and the child died in my hands. She had lost all her children in the famine and just left. So, I took care of the burial of her last child.
In 1994, after doing back-to-back coverage of the genocide and war in Bosnia, I suffered a nervous breakdown and went on a short medical leave from the UN. I didn’t even want to pick up a camera…one day, I spotted a butterfly that had landed on a sunflower in my neighbor’s garden. I quickly grabbed my camera that had been sitting in the closet and took a few shots. Slowly, as my years at the UN were winding down, my focus as a photographer switched to nature and wildlife. I began traveling back to India to ‘shoot’ the dwindling numbers of tigers in the wild.
My wildlife photography, on the other hand, has taught me to be patient, to sit still and wait for as long as it takes to get that fleeting shot of a bird in flight or a tiger on the prowl. One time, I waited on my knees for two hours for a puffin to land on a rock on an island off the coast of Maine. Shooting nature has also taught me to be more observant, to see a beautiful photograph in a crack on the side walk or on a piece of wood washed up on a beach. Zen teaches us to ‘Stop, Look and Listen’.
Today as a freelance photographer I am busier than ever. I pick the assignments or book projects that I am interested in. For instance, now, I am working on a book about the tigers of India. I also enjoy teaching and helping students see and understand the world we live in. After all, that is what photography is all about, isn’t it?
As photography enthusiasts, we give way too much emphasis on rules and rigid ideas. The essence of the medium should be to experience it, and to experience life. After all, the beauty of photography is that you can keep doing it. It evolves as you evolve. Be it photojournalism or wildlife, it is the journey that is more important… the fact that it is a way of life. As I am getting older, I look at things differently. Antoine de Saint Exupery in his book Little Prince said, “It is only with the heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
About John Issac: After covering conflict and serving as the official photographer for the United Nations, John Isaac now enjoys shooting nature and travel. As he puts these starkly different genres into perspective, he strongly believes that one’s photographic journey should be nothing but a reflection of the self.Tags: Wildlife Photography, John Isaac, January 2012, Visual Musings, Jan 2012, Photokina, Germany, Israel conflict, United Nations, New York, Madras School of Arts.