A Focus on United Nations Photographer, John Isaac by Richard Cole

One cannot talk about photographer John Isaac without mentioning the organization he has done work for – the United Nations. For those who might not be aware the United Nations is (to quote wikipedia) “an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, to stop wars between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. It contains multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.”

What a lot of you reading this may not be aware of though is the role photographers like John Isaac play in the work of the UN. The work of the UN photographers can be viewed online in what’s called ‘The United Nations Photo Library’ – a collection of approximately 800,000 photographs dating back to the mid-1940s which chronicle the history of the UN and its work globally. Included in the collection are photos from historic UN meetings and events, as well as a wide array of field coverage shots from the organizations early days. The driving mission behind the library is to make the work of photographers like Isaac available to media, government and non-governmental organizations, as well as researchers and civil society at large in order to try and foster a public understanding of the UN’s work and its goals.

By now you’re likely wondering ‘If there are so many of these photographers working for the UN, why’d you pick Isaac to write an article on? What makes him stand out from the crowd?’. In truth it was mostly due to a documentary on the March 11 Japan Earthquake back in September called ‘Portraits of Courage’. The documentary itself follows Isaac as he travels around Rikuzentakata in the Tohoku region of Japan documenting the region’s recovery following the quake. When talking about his trip to the region, Isaac had the following to say: 

“After photographing the tragedies in Rwanda and Bosnia for the United Nations in 1994, I returned to New York emotionally drained. I had to be treated for a nervous breakdown and spent several months vowing never to photograph disasters around the world again. So it is interesting that when I was approached by Olympus Japan and JIB TV to document the recovery of the terrible earhquake and tsunami of March 2011, I agreed to do it. I recalled my prior trips to Japan when I enjoyed the hospitality of so many people and memorable visits to various shrines and temples in Kyoto and Ise. I had read about the resilience of the Japan people and wanted to see it for myself. The seven days I spent in Rikuzentakata in the Tohoku region were so memorable to me. I was reassured when I saw first-hand the valiant efforts the people of Rikuzentakata were making to overcome their tragedy. These simple and good people are my new heroes.”

During the course of the documentary (literally some thirty minutes) I found my respect grow and grow for this man about whom up until this point I’d known nothing. This one man seemed to embody the polar opposite of all the natural bias I have toward the media. It can be best summarized with this quote from Isaac’s biography – “In many cultures, people believe that when you take someone’s picture you take away their souls. As a photojournalist, I am aware of that. From my early photography career I was also concerned about the dignity of the individuals that I photographed. It was, and always will be, important for me that I did not take away someone’s dignity in my pictures.”

In my opinion, Isaac is the kind of photographer others ought to aspire to be. While many would disregard the subject’s dignity, all in favour of getting “that one shot”, this one man defies that and instead chooses to remain respectful despite what his peers may think. This, in my opinion, is something of a rarity in this day and age. In an era where people are more interested in getting a story by any means than the thought of whom they might be hurting in the process of getting it. It is for this reason that Isaac has inspired me to become a better photographer (whilst still maintaining my own moral code) and to perhaps one day travel to some of these locations myself.

If you’re interesting in learning more about John Isaac or if you would like to check out the work of the UN photographers, please check out the following links…


Written by Richard Cole. You can follow Richard on Twitter @RickColePhoto, Facebook, Behance and Flickr. Plus, click here to read more about the man himself!

3 Responses to “A Focus on United Nations Photographer, John Isaac by Richard Cole”
  1. Kike Calvo says:

    I want to say I am glad to see this piece on John. He was my boss at the United Nations Photo Unit when I was an intern beginning my career in New York City.

  2. Richard Cole says:

    Heya Kike,

    Thanks for the comment! Glad you liked my article. What was it like getting to work with someone like John? I can only imagine the sorts of places you must have been to and the things you’ve seen as a member of the UN Photo Unit.

    Thanks again!

    – Rick

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