John Isaac talks about his passion for wildlife photography and the experience of being Michael Jackson’s personal photographer
“Three days back, I got a wonderful shot of a mother with three cubs at Ranthambore,” says an elated John Isaac. . “From here, I go to Bandhavgarh and return to Ranthambore for one final shoot. And my book on tigers will be ready!” . Barely a week ago, he got operated on the thigh for blood clots but came rushing from New York only to see the tigers. “I couldn’t have missed the opportunity”
A tall man in his late sixties, with a strong American accent and Indian looks, John has wielded the lens at everything from battlefields to butterflies and big cats. From clicking Jallikattu in Madurai to being Michael Jackson’s personal photographer, his laurels are many.
John covered some of the world’s gruesome happenings as the chief photographer at United Nations for nearly two decades, until he was psychologically affected by a picture taken by him at the Rwanda genocide. “That day in 1994 in Rwanda after meeting a small orphaned boy, I was depressed,” recalls John.
After nearly six months of medication and counselling, the turning point came one evening when John was idling at his doorstep. “I suddenly saw a sunflower in full bloom and a swallowtail butterfly hovering around it for honey. Being a photography-maniac, I rushed for my camera and shot 36 frames of the flower with the fly. Since then, nature and the wild has been my subject.”
Born in a non-descript village called Irungalur near Trichi, John’s journey to become a world famous photographer is a gripping story. “It all started in the 1960s, when I was crazy about American folk music. I and my mother used to sing carols at the church and I always dreamt of going to America and becoming a rock star,” says John. “I landed in New York as a road-side guitar player with less than a dollar in my pocket and a passerby asked me if I can play at the UN’s choir. And that’s how I entered UN and later went on to become a messenger, then a clerical staff and then as the photography department chief.”
UN is also where John met his wife Janet, who currently writes the texts for all his coffee table books. “My interest in photography began when I started working in the dark room. I started to click pictures with a handy film-roll camera. And every time, I visited my mother in India, I took as many pictures,” he says. “Once, I casually sent a picture taken in Assam for an international contest in Germany and that was awarded to everyone’s surprise. Another photo taken at the Marina beach got me my second major award. Madurai has also fetched me fame. A picture of people winnowing paddy during Pongal time won the Nikon Award and it’s still one of my best selling frames. .”
After being elevated as a photo journalist, John’s first assignment was to cover the Israel-Lebanon conflict. “I was doing social documentation and was labelled as peoples’ photographer. But I always respected the dignity of people. I chose to miss a Pulitzer Prize for the cause. Photography is highly philosophical and one must follow the ethics of it.”
How he became Michael Jackson’s personal photographer is “ purely coincidental”. MJ was impressed by a poster made by John for UNICEF and wanted him to take his pictures. . “We developed a profound friendship. There were times when people like Spike Lee and Bob Johns used to be irked by my proximity to him .” Working with the pop star for nearly 8 years, left John with an impaired ear. “I never used ear plugs on the stage with Michael and the high decibels did the damage. But, nothing stopped me from clicking pictures. I have been Michael’s eyes and have shown him what he couldn’t see while singing the concerts,” he beams.
John who is currently working on tigers says, “I see a positive trend as the population of tigers have gone up in Ranthambore. I don’t want India to lose the tigers as we lost the cheetah in the 1960’s. Also being the national symbol, the tigers should be preserved.”
John’s works include a book on Kashmir’s landscapes and people, called ‘The vale of Kashmir’ with 166 shots, a book on Coorg valley and the Kodavas tribe and numerous articles on the reserve forests of India. “I would like to come back to my backyard to do a work exclusively on South India and the pristine forests of Nagarhole,” says John. “I will also be roping in young photographers to work on women’s and children’s issues in India. I want to spread words through my frames and love through my lens.”