A couple of years ago, I came across a portrait of a sad owl under the rain on 500px. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I never knew there existed such a deep photograph of a non-human creature. I was not the only one thinking so. That picture had won an award and I discovered Shamma Esoof (Sham Jolimie), a person who advocates for animal welfare, social justice, and is passionate about nature conservation. The cherry on top was when I discovered that the author of that unforgettable owl portrait was a mutual friend on social media and was from Mauritius, a country I call my second home after Armenia.
Being interested in all forms of art, Shamma started photography more than 10 years ago as it seemed to fit her introvert personality perfectly. To her, photography is a flexible tool that allows her to come out of her comfort zone, to experience the world, and tell stories through visuals.
Shamma has always been in awe of nature and animals. Therefore, it was very natural that she specialized in wildlife and pet portraits. She has a profound respect for animals and always strives to portray them with the dignity they deserve.
Being fascinated by owls, Shamma started her owl portrait series back in 2012 in Malaysia where she now lives.
“They have huge front-facing eyes that seem to gaze into your soul,” said Shamma. “They seem to know all the secrets of the universe. They look so intelligent and majestic.”
Shamma doesn’t make any distinction between portraiture of animals and people. In both cases, the subject has to trust her with their very essence; personal connection is crucial. She always tries to get eye contact with her subjects to be able to share the emotional thrill she feels when she stares into their eyes.
“I am not ashamed to say that I talk to animals all the time. It doesn't matter which language I use or what I'm saying, I just feel like they appreciate my effort to reach out to them,” Shamma said.
Sometimes they will give her great eye contact and that's when Shamma will shoot the photo. Sometimes they will completely ignore her but as she claims, that's alright, because she treasures every minute spent with them.
The artist adds that owls may be cute but they are not meant to be pets. They are wild animals and do not do well in captivity. She believes that their natural habitats should be protected from illegal logging and the careless conversion of forests into farmland.
Besides owls, Shamma is very fond of her cat Aslan whom she adopted from a kill-shelter. Aslan, being a fine and well-behaved cat, became her biggest inspiration and he just happens to be extremely photogenic. Add in a few tricks to catch his attention (a skill in itself) and some props, and Aslan turns into quite an elegant being. Shamma says she has learned a lot from him and that they are now almost like twins. Aslan was already an adult when she adopted him. She chose to adopt an adult cat because they very rarely get adopted and have to be put to sleep.
Shamma works in the humanitarian field as an analyst and educator. Aside from her job and her photography, she runs a women’s empowerment group and does volunteer work for animal welfare.
She has been an animal welfare advocate for as long as she can remember. When it comes to domestic animals such as cats and dogs, she fervently encourages spaying and neutering. It is the only lasting and sustainable solution to the global stray animal problem. She wants to encourage responsible pet guardianship saying that animals rely on us for a safe, long, and happy life. We are responsible for them and should not let them down.
Shamma holds numerous awards with her mesmerizing animal portraits, has been published in several magazines, and participated in art exhibitions across the world.
While Shamma still carries on her owl portraits series, she is currently working on a monkey and ape portraits series. “I love monkeys as much as cats and owls. Primates are more like us than we care to admit,” she said.
She vehemently condemns cruelty towards animals. Her animal portraits are meant to show that animals are far more precious and intelligent than we give them credit for and she encourages people to pay more attention to animal welfare. I cannot argue about that.
“I have hope that through my art, perceptions will sway and make way for a deeper understanding of animals. Animals are always surprising us with their intelligence, emotional abilities, and compelling beauty. I believe that symbiotic relationships between people and animals is possible,” she said.
In today’s world, it is quite an amazing thing to meet with an artist with a purpose and a profound dedication to the cause she cares about. Getting to know the talented Shamma over the course of a small interview and discovering the huge meaning behind her portraits was an eye-opening experience. It makes me think that we are all obliged to produce a work that more or less serves a purpose, that we are powerful in our very own way and can change people, if not the world, for the best.
All images used with permission of Shamma Esoof (Sham Jolimie).