Photographer Sylvia Elzafon combined her profession with her love of pets into a crusade to help animal shelters
Sylvia Elzafon takes her devotion to animals seriously.
She’s a dedicated vegan with a history of working for non-profit organizations like Mercy for Animals. Just how dedicated? Well, right now, she’s in Nepal, helping with the recovery following this year’s devastating earthquake … not volunteering with the Red Cross, but with the Human Society International, assisting the group in addressing the crisis over the effect of the tragedy on the animal population, as well as its effect on humans.
“In a lot of developing countries, a lot of families and villages rely on their livestock — they may have one cow and maybe two goats and that’s their livelihood,” she says. “The human-animal connection is a different dynamic.” And the earthquake’s impact on street dogs has left many starving or subjected to rampant disease; the Humane Society hopes to vaccinate and neuter these animals to minimize the spread of sickness and starvation.
But while Elzafon wasn’t sure the day before she left exactly what her duties would be, she’s not a veterinarian. Nor is she a nurse or first-responder. No, Elzafon is a professional photographer. And as hands-on as she hopes to be, she’ll also be “documenting all the work in Nepal. It should be an amazing trip,” she says.
Combining photography with animal rights and treatment isn’t new to Elzafon. In fact, it’s been a passion for more than five years.
In 2009, she was living in Arlington when she visited an animal shelter in Fort Worth. “It was really kind of scary looking — a lot of outdoor enclosures, and lots of concrete,” she says. “I was at a place in my life where I needed to do something with my life. So I reached out to them to say I’d like to work with you in any way I can — to use my skills to make a difference.”
That’s when she first starting taking photos of shelter dogs and cats. This was before the idea of shelter dog photography had become the norm, In fact, she helped establish the trend.
“Rescue groups are great because often they have been in a home and they can relate to [adopting families],” she says.
“Shelter dogs require more patience, because those scars [of abandonment and being in a shelter] are hard to heal.” By taking photos of them, Elzafon gave the animals a softer, more relatable look.
Eventually, Elzafon began working with Dallas Animal Services, the main city service for taking control of strays. The agency quickly became a priority “because of their intake numbers — they just have so many animals coming in. In the summer, imagine 50, 80 even 100 cats and dogs coming in a day,” she says. “[The service] has a high euthanasia rate not because they want to but because they have to.” And the best way to get those numbers down is to increase adoptions.
And that’s where Elzafon works her magic.
“My photos didn’t become a series with more artistic elements until I started working with Dallas,” she says — after the shelter set aside space for a small photographic studio. “I have the ability [in Dallas] to work with the dogs in a controlled environment and get them to feeling safe instead of taking them through cages. The photos evolved from being a feeling of sadness and despair — and I think those are important, too — to reflecting [the pets’ personalities].”
Spending time with such sweet, needy faces can take its toll, but Elzafon — as much as she loves animals — knows she can’t personally save every one.
“People say to me all the time, ‘Oh, I could never do what you do and go to the shelter all that often. It must be so sad and I’d want to adopt them all.’ But I consider myself to be in a fortunate situation — I have two dogs at home, which is the limit my landlord allows. The temptation is there, but I have to put my heart and emotions aside and go, or else I’d end up being a crazy dog lady without a home!” she laughs. “I’m glad I have my boundaries and my limits.”
Elzafon’s own four-legged family includes her “old girl,” 11-year-old Maddie; and a fairly recent addition, Leo (a lab mix), whom she obtained from DFW Rescue Me. In fact, getting Leo brought her mission full-circle.
“The coolest moment was when I was going through Facebook and a photo came up. I see dogs all day, but I just saw Leo and said, ‘I need to have him.’ I immediately fell in love with him. It turned out his foster mom is a photographer and she take photos for DFW Rescue Me! So a professional photographer took a picture and I fell in love. It took that for me to feel and understand the power of the image.”
As Elzafon’s career has taken off and kept her busy, she has less time than she used to for her Shelter Series, but she still tries to shoot at the shelter once a month, and perhaps more importantly, to train other people who can step in and keep the program going. “The point is to get as many photos out there on social media as possible,” she says … and therefore pair the perfect pet with the right family.
To see her Shelter Series and other photographic work, visit SylviaElzafon.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 17, 2015.