Check, please!

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — “So, who’s funding you?” has become my new mantra.

On August 1, 2012, I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the first day of the first leg (of perhaps eight) of this entire Jewish Africa photographic survey endeavor. In fact, it was only five hours after I landed that I had my first photo appointment. There I was, taking pictures of Yeshiva Maharsha Beis Aharon and chatting to several boys who study there. They asked me intelligent questions about what and why I was taking photographs of their school and synagogue. That was reasonable, I thought. After all, I’d be asking some questions too if someone came into my house and started photographing. They were curious, enthusiastic, and welcoming. When one of them asked, “So who’s paying for this?”, I laughed, and thought to myself, “That’s a little too curious, a little too personal.”

Yeshiva Maharsha Beis Aharon. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Yeshiva Maharsha Beis Aharon. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

Little did I know it then, but it was the first of, oh, literally some one hundred times hence that I’ve been queried on the matter in one form or another. From South Africa to Mauritius, from Namibia to Zambia, there’s a whole lot of Jews out there who are apparently concerned about my finances. I suspect they might be out there across the whole of Africa.

“Do you have a sponsor?” “Are you commissioned?” “Do you work for someone?” “Do you work for yourself?” “How do you pay for this?” “Have you found someone to fund you?” “Who pays for this?”

In the beginning, I was somewhat coy in my answers, and sometimes even deflected them by indirectly suggesting that it was none of their business. “Oh, this is just something that I love to do,” was the generic comment. But by the time question 27 or so rolled around, I started guffawing in faces and replying in no uncertain terms that I found their question rather direct. I mean, I don’t ask people about how they fund their lives and interests, not as a habit, anyway.

“I do.” Or, “You’re looking at the funder.”

That was pretty much my stock answer for a while when asked who’s paying, and left it at that. But recently, I’ve started firing back more directly.

“You know, I learned a long time ago that documentation doesn’t pay,” I’d tell them. “So, are you making an offer of support?” Or, “Do you have your checkbook with you? I accept cash too.” Those sorts of replies are usually received with a bit of uncomfortable laughter.

While I don’t do this work for the money, I certainly welcome it! It takes money — a lot of it — to do what I do. In fact, this current trip that I am on is probably the single-most expensive trip that I’ve ever taken, and future legs of this Jewish Africa journey are not going to get cheaper. Africa is expensive. But it’s what I do, and I’ll continue to do what I can with the limited resources I have.

“Do you have a grant?” is a far less frequent question. Here’s the answer: No. Being an “individual”, I am ineligible to even apply for funding from virtually all organizations and foundations who support only non-profits and persons connected to the same. So, why not make my Jewish photo library a non-profit, you wonder? Well, because above all else, retaining full copyright and control over my images in perpetuity is paramount. I could lose my life’s work if such a non-profit folds at any time in the future.

Having said that, I return home from this trip, like my others, a richer man. There are countless good souls across each and every Jewish community I have visited who have done wondrous things for me that are tantamount to support of various sorts: financial, logistical, spiritual. From being treated to meals to schlepping me around in their vehicles (burning their expensive petrol), from presenting me with books about their communities to the priceless gift of their time, I have in fact been bestowed with a pile of aid and friendship. I have also been given priceless unique experiences and memories that I will carry for the rest of my days. I am not merely grateful for all of it, but honored to be so enthusiastically welcomed into their communities.

But, per the mantra, instead of asking, “So, who’s funding you?”, please, check, please!

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