Jack, let’s start from the top, Zim born… you arrive in SA with R300 in your pocket…
How do you know that?
I do my homework.
Yes, true. That was in 1978. I left Harare with R300, a 15-year-old Volvo, a few bits and pieces and I arrived in South Africa. that was the start, I was 29/30, ambitious… probably reckless but you know young people take chances. So, I arrived here, I had to start a business and start making a living with that. That was the start of it, everything was going beautifully and then our President at the time, PW Botha shook his finger at the world, that was the Rubicon speech. In one week everything turned around. The rand plummeted, that week was bloodshed, big companies were closing down… we were a casualty of the situation, we were forced to close the business down. Closing down sounds easy, but that year my father had, had a stroke in Israel, my wife was 8 months pregnant, I was in the middle of building a house and there I was shutting down a business which employed 120 people. We shut down on a Wednesday, Monday morning I was at work for another company. I went from being the boss to being an employee. I went from having ten reps working for me to being one of ten reps working for someone else. It was quite a humiliating experience, a very depressing time in my life. I went through depression, the situation was heavy.
I want to talk more about depression but let’s back up for a moment. I know this is a long way away from where you are now, but it is a stepping stone to this point. What advice can you give to new business starters having walked that road? Maybe a thing or two you have learned along the way…
Look business started with me at the age of 22 in what was Rhodesia where I owned a furniture factory. It was difficult to run a business because the army wanted you 6 weeks in and 6 weeks out. Leaving your business along for 6 weeks… you found you were a casualty of the war, it was for that reason that I eventually got out of Rhodesia, there was no way to take your career forward. some of the best lessons in life are that you have got to trust your instincts, remember when you are young you don’t have much in the way of experience, you don’t see the road ahead. I also use this analogy, as youngers from Rhodesia we used to go to Beira which is on the other side of the border in Mozambique. so, it was 360km away from Harare, it was 180km to the border and 180km to Beira. We used to do it in the afternoon so by the time we were getting toward Mozambique it was nighttime, the trip used to take us 2 or 3 hours. We used to return in the daytime and the trip used to take us 4 or 5 hours and the reason is that there were potholes on the roads and at night you couldn’t see them so you would just go straight over them and you succeeded. During the day you saw them, the potholes… the pitfalls so you. This is what happens, we see too many pitfalls which is why young people who are ambitious, it is fine to be a little bit naive. Go with it. It is fine to be courageous, that is very important, courage.
I encourage my own children to be courageous, what is the worst that can happen? You lose it all, you are young, you can make it again. You don’t have children and grandchildren and thousands of employees. You are trying something, give it a go. That is my advice to young people – give it a go.
Moving along in time, you speak very openly about your battle with depression. We don’t have to go there if you don’t feel comfortable but if you do let’s go there. Mental health is an issue that should be brought up and discussed as much as possible.
Depression is not big deal in my life. I have had two bouts of depression in my life, once when I lost my business, it was valid, I had worries… I had parents to look after… I had my partner who was my brother-in-law and my sister. Their children to take care of, my children to take care of.
Sorry to cut you in, but there is depression that is a reaction to an event of some sort and depression that is chemically related. I am no expert or professional on this matter but I do have an understanding…
Yes, lucky for me it was through circumstance but the effect is the same, whether it is through circumstance or chemical… waking up at night with cold sweats, worrying, loss of concentration. It is really a serious, serious situation. When they talk about mental illness people poo-poo it but it is real, it exists and it is treatable. The important thing for me… the best thing is to see a doctor. When you are in a depression you make bad choices or the no choices. You procrastinate and when you are in that state where you procrastinate and you are making these bad choices, you are just going in a downward spiral battle. You have got to stop it immediately. You have got to get your mind right and your energy comes back, you start thinking more clearly. Sometimes getting out of that depression shows you that even that situation wasn’t that bad.
Yes, but harder to see when you are in the mists of it. For those watching from the outside what is the best way to help?
You know the second bout I had was about 5 years ago. Those are the two times in my life. Again I took measures very quickly and I tackled the situation and we got passed it but I spoke to my colleagues, I told them ” I am the captain of this ship, but understand that at this point I don’t have the capabilities to do the job right. I am trusting my colleagues here to put it all together for me. I am admitting to you that I have got this problem and you will help me get out of this problem so the business continues. The business didn’t take a knock because I wasn’t the person making the decisions, I left it to others. My wife and family were very supportive. It went on again for about 3 or 4 months until the medicine killed in, then it was back to normal.
Talking about your wife, 31 years of marriage. Secrets? It is rather rare, unfortunately.
Well, firstly I love her.
That’s a biggie I have heard. I am glad you love the woman you are married to.
Secondly, in spite of what I have just told you, life is not that serious. It shouldn’t be. We laugh a lot. We have a lot in common, she is a very intelligent person which is not what I have in common with her by the way, I am not that intelligent. She is intelligent… we have fun, that is a very important element in your life, having fun. We have brought up 3 children, it was really a house full of laughter. Every night at the dinner table it was hysterics and laughter. It was always fun, you don’t have to be rich to have fun.
What do you think that every parent should instil in their children… ethics… morals…
We have 3 girls, the one thing I instilled in them is that that they are lucky, there were other kids at school who weren’t. The are others who are outside, I don’t know what they are calling it, the in crowd.
Is that what all the kids are calling it nowadays are calling it?
I wanted them to understand that these people are frightened and nervous, they should never ostracize people and never ever to bully anyone. So the lessons I wanted my children to learn was never to bully or ostracize anyone and charity, charity has always been a big part of our lives.
I will talk to you about charity in a bit. Let’s talk Faces and Places, how did it start?
I have been involved in photography for a while, I have always concentrated on black and white photography, colour has never interested me. The reason I use black and white is because you get to interpret the scene. In colour, you just replicate it. The tree is green, the sky is… it is great in terms of composition but you can’t add any of your own emotion to a picture. You can’t bring your own style into it. I just love black and white photography, I have honours from the South African Photographic Society of South Africa. About 5 years ago I decided, my family decided that we should produce a book which is going to be for a charity and the charity is Stop Hunger Now. First, the book had to be produced, there was quite a lot of working in producing this book. I think all together there I have visited about 14 countries. The content of the book… I didn’t look for pretty pictures, you will notice very little of my stuff is pretty. it is mainly gutwrenching, from a rough background.
I find your work to be as sad as it is beautiful, quite the contradiction.
Yeah, some of it sure. It is the emotion that I like in the picture and you do bring it out in black and white. So, we got involved with Stop Hunger Now and we sold the book through a lot of sponsorships or whatever. I also auctioned a lot of my photography, we collected about half a million Rand for Stop Hunger Now. The beautiful of what they do is that it is a program where they produce a meal in a little packet. In that meal there is rice and lentils and beans, you put it into a pot and you cook it. But those little packets have to be produced. We had an event with King David School, they sent tons of this food which had to be packaged and boxed. There were two teams doing it, it was a lot of fun with music. It became a privilege for the kids at school.
Yes, a very important thing to teach children, the importance of giving in any shape and form, most of their time.
The kids who had succeeded at something were given that privilege of being in the packing team, they really loved it. We have also worked with a whole lot of other charities. We support many charities, we don’t have one favourite charity. Being Jewish I support the Chevrah Kadisha and I support Chubad House, I like what they do. I am not a religious person but they do bring the religious community back to life.
Your book, 80 children are fed off the sale of one book?
When you take pictures, do you ask for permission?
No, no. I take the picture. Sometimes I do if I have to. I like to take pictures when the subject is unaware, that is when you get the real person. I love taking pictures in India, 60% of my new book is taken in India, it is an amazing amazing country. the people are amazing, if you look at my photography you will notice in most cases that the men will have their heads covered with something and they won’t be wearing traditional Western clothes. I look for impact when I am taking a picture, that is everything in a photograph, it must have had an impact.
New book, same look and feel?
Yes, I am hoping to call it From Rags to Riches, there will be a few palaces, the main focus won’t be poverty. It’s years and years of photography, it takes a long long time.
Faces and Places how many years of gathering photos?
Twenty years. The first photo was taken in the late 80ies.
Wow, thanks for the chat. Anything you would like to add?
Yes, making money is not an end in itself, there has to be a purpose. amassing money is mad, you have to be kind of crazy to just keep adding more and more money to your bank and doing nothing with it. That to me is crazy thinking, it is important that from your effort, not only your family benefits but charities benefited, communities benefited. That is really very important.
Take from the world but not forgetting to always give back.
Yes, give back and be proud of what you have done.