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The Photographic Chain: Five minutes with John Isaac

This post is the latest in Kike Calvo´s series The Photographic Chain, which profiles photographers from around the world he meets during his travels. My dreams is… to be a better human being by evolving each day. Helping myself  from all the lessons I have learned about life during my journey as a photojournalist. To be a...

This post is the latest in Kike Calvo´s series The Photographic Chain, which profiles photographers from around the world he meets during his travels.

My dreams is… to be a better human being by evolving each day. Helping myself  from all the lessons I have learned about life during my journey as a photojournalist. To be a better photographer each day, since I am learning new lessons every day in photography.
Young male tiger (India). © Photo John Isaac.


The biggest lesson in my career… Not to take away some one’s dignity by my actions, particularly with my photographs. Three people that I knew well and worked with influenced me on this subject. My mother, Audrey Hepburn and Mother Teresa. They all emphasized abut human dignity. I am a human first, and then only a photographer. While I was covering the Ethiopian draught in 1984, I saw a woman who delivered he baby by the roadside and the baby’s umbilical chord still attached to her. My reaction was to cover her with her clothes and call the doctor and nurse who were in the nearly camp. A TV crew had seen this and went to their jeep to get the camera and film her in the state she was lying on the road naked. The camera man was so upset that I had clothed her and almost punched me for ruining his photo. During the same trip, a woman asked me to hold her dying baby in my hand. Since all her children died one by one in her hand. She said please save me from the disgrace of having my last child in my hands. So, I held the baby and when the baby died, she left with out saying anything. I had to do the burial ritual for this little baby myself with the help of my driver and translator.

The biggest lesson in my life… My dear mother was a the biggest influence in my life. She taught me an old Sanskrit proverb when I was young man and asked me to follow that. It is called “This Day”. It is about today and living in the present.


Karachi (Pakistán). Photo © John Isaac
Karachi (Pakistán). Photo © John Isaac

 Look to this day for it is Life
the very life of life
In its brief course lie all
the realities and principles of existence.
The bliss of growth
the splendor of action
the power of glory.
Yesterday was just a dream
and tomorrow only a vision

But, today well lived
makes every yesterday
a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow 
a vision of Hope.
Look well there fore to this day….
an Old Sanskrit proverb.

The moment I will never forget… In 1988 I was in Ehiopia doing a story on the poorest people who were garbage sifters, who collected garbage and recycled. I was photographing this old lady who was blind in one eye and lived alone in a shack made of tin. I was in a hurry to get back to the hotel since at that time, Ethiopia was under a lot of unrest and a revolution was going on. Asmara was still part of Ethiopia. Eritria was not formed yet. My helicopter was waiting  to take me to Addis Ababa where I was staying. There was a curfew after 6PM. This lady wanted me to stay a little longer since she kept saying to me and my interpreter that I cannot leave until she gave me something to take with me.She was actually waiting of her only possession, a hen, to lay an egg. Finally she gave me that egg and asked me to take it to the hotel and eat it. Giving is the greatest gift. This lady taught me that. When I got back to the hotel, I told the cook to boil that egg for me for my breakfast the next morning. He laughed and said “Just an egg. We have eggs here. Why is this so special?” I will never forget that encounter as long as I live.
Photography is…  A way of life for me. I actually live for this.
Why?   Happiness is something that comes from within. We cannot acquire it. It is a simple pleasure that we can feel it when it happens. Every time I am involved in photography, I get that happiness feeling. And when photography became “a way of life for me”, I became happy every day.
The Time Machine: 


Back then. John Isaac in Dogan village (Mali). John came to America in 1968 hoping to become a Folk singer. He used to sing in Greenwich village, for nickels and dimes. A lady who worked for the United Nations liked his singing, and asked him if he would like to work at the UN and if I would like to audition for a spot in the United Nations Singers. That was his entry to the UN as a messenger. Two years later he was on this CBS TV show called ¨Ted Mack Amateur Hour.¨
So…Who is John?
More about John: click here
Kike´s thoughts: I had the pleasure to meet John as an Intern at the United Nations Department of Public Information and Photo Unit. He inspired me to move to New York City. I applied to such position, while working at the University of Idaho Argonaut student newspaper, after I found in the darkroom a feature article about his work. I also had the chance to be on his farewell party at the United Nations, after years documenting the world working for this organization. It is my pleasure to profile him on this blog. 


“I first met Kike at the United Nations while I was working as a photographer. Our common interest was photography. During my stay at the UN as a photographer. I had come across many young people with great interest in photography.  But Kike was dedicated to learn and get better at his skills. He was passionate about it. I knew from the very beginning that he will one day be a wonderful photographer. And my guess was right.” — John Isaac 

John suggests me to talk to: Former Editor of American Photo Magazine Russell Hart and photographers Alexandra Avakian, Ann Johansson or Eli Reed. 

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Kike Calvo
Award-winning photographer, journalist, and author Kike Calvo (pronounced key-keh) specializes in culture and environment. He has been on assignment in more than 90 countries, working on stories ranging from belugas in the Arctic to traditional Hmong costumes in Laos. Kike is pioneering in using small unmanned aerial systems to produce aerial photography as art, and as a tool for research and conservation. He is also known for his iconic photographic project, World of Dances, on the intersection of dance, nature, and architecture. His work has been published in National Geographic, New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, and Vanity Fair, among others. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices. He has authored nine books, including Drones for Conservation; So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones?; Staten Island: A Visual Journey to the Lighthouse at the End of the World; and Habitats, with forewords by David Doubilet and Jean-Michel Cousteau. Kike’s images have been exhibited around the world, and are represented by the National Geographic Image Collection. Kike was born in Spain and is based in New York. When he is not on assignment, he is making gazpacho following his grandmother’s Andalusian recipe. You can travel to Colombia with Kike: