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Bronxville Photographer Has Captured History

BRONXVILLE, N.Y. --  He has won more awards than he can count, spent 34 years as a photographer for the United Nations, written a book and is working on two others, and is the subject of a documentary film that will air across the globe. But John Isaac, 68 of Bronxville, started out with a dream to come to America to be a folk singer.

Isaac, a native of India, came to New York in 1968, trying to break in to the folk singing culture of the time. He was just about at the end of his visa and was playing and singing in the streets for coins when a lady who organized the chorus for the United Nations asked him if he would consider singing in their choir.

“She said she needed a baritone and I would be perfect,” Isaac recalls, “But I told her she would have to help get me a job so I could stay here.”

With that, Isaac began his tenure at the United Nations delivering mail. But soon after he got a used camera, his first, for his birthday and began taking pictures.

“I started getting noticed after I won a few awards,” Isaac said.  “In 1978, the UN sent me to Lebanon.”

For the next 26 years, Isaac traveled the world, capturing history in still photographs for the UN.

“I was in the killing fields of Cambodia in 1979. I covered the conflict from both sides between Israel and Lebanon. I covered the Ethiopian famine, in 1984, and the Gulf war in 1991,” he said.

All along the way, Isaac documented human suffering on roll after of roll of film.

In 1994, after covering tribal wars in Rwanda, and then going straight to the war in Bosnia to cover the conflict between the Christians and the Muslims, all the tragedy he witnessed, caved in on him.

“I saw the Muslims and Christians destroying each other’s churches, I saw the Rwandan tribes hacking each other to death,” Isaac said. “I came home and had a nervous breakdown.”

Isaac said he could not even pick up a camera for months during his recovery. Then one day he saw a butterfly land on a sunflower in his backyard and ran into his house to get his camera.

“I shot three rolls of film that day,” Isaac said. “The next day, I went back to work.”

Since he retired from the UN, Isaac has published a book on Casmir and has been asked to put together a retrospective of his 40 years as a photographer, which include some lighter subjects, like Audrey Hepburn and Michael Jackson.

He was invited to Japan by the Japanese government in March 2011 after the tsunami hit.

“I toured the area and took pictures and they filmed me doing that,” he said.

Of all the photographs he has taken, Isaac said his favorite is one of a small group of young girls in Pakistan.

“They were sitting in a circle, and they had their shoes off and they were reading books,” Isaac said. “It was so symbolic, so full of hope for the future.”

And in Isaac’s future there will be more photographs and more books.

“Well I am working on the retrospective, but I have also been working on a book about tigers and how they are disappearing more and more from India,” he said “It is a project I want to do very much, and have been working on for a long time.”

For more information on John Isaac, including the times and dates his documentary will air, check him out on Facebook at

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