Mauritian Photographer Shamma Esoof With Her Astonishing, Sad Owl Portraits [Interview]

Mauritian Photographer Shamma Esoof With Her Astonishing, Sad Owl Portraits [Interview]

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 Esoof (Sham Jolimie)

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.

The Barn Owl, the ethereal bird with a heart-shaped face.

The magnificent Barn Owl.
Barn Owls are self-aware. They can recognize themselves in a mirror, which is something only humans and highly intelligent animals can do. They are also emotionally sensitive. They've redefined the way I see birds.

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.

“I shot this precious moment on a rainy monsoon day. I stood in ankle deep rainwater and shared a silent conversation with this shivering wet owl. We stared at each other for a long while. Its deep intelligent eyes and sad demeanor changed my perception of birds forever. They are more sentient and self-aware than I ever imagined. Owls have tiny facial muscles that allow them to show their feelings on their faces, just like humans.”

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. 

Have closer a look at her work on 500px and show support if you like one of her portraits. You can also find her on Instagram.

All images used with permission of Shamma Esoof (Sham Jolimie).

Emma Grigoryan's picture

Emma Grigoryan is an award winning Fine Art/Fashion photographer based in Armenia. She enjoys styling and creating her own sets and looks: be it a conceptual shoot or a beauty look. Her biggest inspirations are diversity, color, water and geometry. Since 2012 she is a contributor for Art+Commerce and Vogue Italia.

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Nice to have an article once in a while that doesn't make me want to go buy something or open photoshop to try a new trick (although those are fun too). Just read/view and enjoy.

Thank you, and that's nice to read as well.
Stay updated for upcoming interviews, this is part of the series I am doing on Mauritian Photographers.

Great shots indeed.
Just out of curiosity I started browsing through her photos on 500px I was surprised to find that are all taken with either a 35mm or a 50mm, with very few exceptions (the sad owl is the most notable one).

most often the simple choice gives the best results, prime lenses are magical, and when combined with magical creatures we have Sham's photography. The sad owl is remarkable indeed!

What a pleasure to read about your work Sham !
Great article !

thanks Khatleen

Why do you think the owls are sad? Rain is norman and natural. They are wet. Maybe the images make you sad but don't attribute it to the owls.

It's kinda like saying a house is red. Color is a function of the eye and brain that perceives it. The owl looks sad just like the house looks red. Photography is about how the photographer and their audience feels about it...not necessarily how the subject feels.