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Eye of the beholder

June 12, 2008
Photographer John Isaac plumped the depths of human degradation; out of the suicidal impulses that experience triggered was born the need to freeze frame transcendent beauty. Annapurna Potluri chronicles his story.

After returning from documenting the genocide in Kigali, Rwanda, on assignment for the United Nations, photographer John Isaac had what he calls a nervous breakdown.

He had seen children murdered, women raped, and human bodies treated like worthless refuse. Afterwards, he returned to his home in New York and to his wife Jeanette, but was making preparations for suicide. He wanted to return to India, to the place he calls his "motherland," to take his life in the place he'd been born.

While still in the depths of his depression, he was having lunch in his backyard in Queens, when he saw a black and yellow butterfly attending to a bright yellow sunflower in full bloom. He ran to get his camera and started shooting that ephemeral moment. "I went back to work the next day," he says.

His experience in Kigali was by no means the first time he had seen such horrors. As the former chief of the United Nations photo unit, Isaac has documented UN missions across the globe for some thirty years. In that time, he has photographed swarms of Cambodian immigrants escaping Pol Pot's killing fields, and Palestinian refugees fleeing their villages after being bombed by the Israeli army.

He was nearly stabbed in Sarajevo by a Serbian soldier when he was mistaken for a "Muslim bastard" because of his beard; the soldier was stopped by others, and Isaac was implored by those traveling with him to identify himself as a Christian to avoid further such episodes, to which Isaac replied, 'Why should I have to identify myself as different?'

Image: Photographer John Isaac fondles a chance-met cub.

Also see: Meet the Baby Photographer
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