Former UN photographer serves as Artist in Residence


Between 1969 and 1998, John Isaac worked as chief photographer for the United Nations in the department of public information. Now retired, Isaac has traveled to more than 100 countries and has captured many triumphs and struggles of the world on film.

Before Isaac began speaking, his longtime travel companion and friend, Frank Smith, introduced him to the audience.

“I’m very blessed and fortunate to have met (Isaac),” Smith said. “He is the most amazing man. Where he goes, people gather, and it’s because of his heart and soul.”

In September of 2015, Isaac was on Lehigh’s campus to give a presentation entitled The Art of Seeing. Before leaving, he expressed interest in returning to interact with Lehigh students again.

“Bethlehem is like my second home,” Isaac said.

Anna Chupa, an associate professor of design, applied for the Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative grant, which paid for Isaac’s travel costs to return to campus. She also arranged Isaac’s week-long trip from March 7-11, where he did two public presentations as the Artist in Residence.

Chupa said Isaac showed interest in doing a project with Lehigh students.

Isaac showed numerous pieces of his work in the presentation, and explained how and where he took them. Isaac also briefly spoke about different angles and heights that allow for the best possible shots.

“Learn all the rules, and then break the rules,” he said. “That’s how something interesting happens.”

Isaac described his journey to India, where he documented his home country and the culture of his people. While presenting photographs from his travels, he focused on the treatment of women in India. He said he felt ashamed of how women are perceived in India, and wanted to get that across through his photography.

While shooting a festival, Isaac read about many different rape cases and the dowry system. He took pictures of women covering their faces in photos because he believed it best describes the treatment of females in the country.

Isaac’s mother raised him after his father died when he was a young boy, so he has a great appreciation for the strength of women, he said. This contributed to his desire to photograph women and to show how they are treated in India.

“After every birthday, my mother would sit me down and tell me a story about something very important in life,” Isaac said.

One thing Isaac touched on during his presentation was the importance of happiness and finding something that you love to do every day. He used the example of buying an exotic car, such as the Ferrari. It will only bring you temporary happiness, but finding what you love will always make you happy for the long term.

During his career as a professional photographer, Isaac traveled on tour with Michael Jackson for two years. He also spent two days with Mother Teresa. After presenting that to the audience, he stated that he is just as good as anybody else. He does not believe his accomplishments make him better than any other person. He believes it’s important to talk to everyone like they are equal.

Isaac said he is fortunate to do something he loves for so long.

“Happiness is the ultimate thing in life,” he said.

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