When it comes to bizarre life-changing moments, a close encounter with a squirrel ranks right up there among the most unique!
Niki Colemont, a Rwandan refugee who grew up in Belgium, came face-to-face with a squirrel at the home of his girlfriend’s grandfather back in 2016.
“I was walking around, and suddenly I heard a strange noise,” Niki explains. “It came from the bushes, and I stand still. And suddenly, just a squirrel came in front of my feet. I think one meter or so. And it did not run away. And I was very surprised to see that. I had never encountered a squirrel at such a close range. It was very special,”
Niki was fascinated, and soon began squirrel-watching whenever he could. Eventually, he started photographing the creatures. And, after a lot of effort, he got pretty good at it.
Watch the video to see the Squirrelman in action.
“I saved up to buy the camera, and it was a real process to learn everything,” says Niki. “I learned everything through trial and error and made a lot of mistakes, and that’s how I learned photography.”
His passion earned him the nickname the Squirrelman.
“I prefer to take pictures of the squirrels because they can do human-like things like picking things up or carrying things,” says Niki.
From simply observing the squirrels in action, Niki began interacting with them. He used props like Barbie dolls, toy cars, umbrellas, and even a Halloween mask to capture them in new and interesting ways. His creativity turned mere snapshots into an art form.
“It’s very, very special to see that they can handle the same stuff that we can,” he says. “They are very, very smart.”
It requires a lot of planning for Niki to get his unique photos. Sometimes, he’ll take an entire week to shoot just one shot of a new series as the squirrels must learn to trust him and get used to the props. But Niki is patient and persistent. And often, with the help of a few snacks, he can get within a few inches of the squirrels to grab the photo he wants.
“They are very comfortable with my appearance,” he says. “They know who I am, and I feed them, and they know that. So, yeah, I’m a good friend to them.”
Now in his 30s, Niki has come a long way since he and his 9-year-old sister fled war-torn Rwanda to escape the genocide. In Belgium, they were adopted. But living there was a whole new world to them, and the transition was not easy.
“I was four years old when I fled from the genocide in Rwanda. Growing up was very tough because I didn’t know or I didn’t understand the language,” he explains. “I had my sister with me, and I could connect with her and then talk my own language. She helped me adapt to Belgium, to life.”
Eventually, Niki did begin to feel at home. He learned other languages like English by watching shows like Friends and The Simpsons, and slowly relaxed into his new surroundings. Indeed, today he has very little memory of his first four years in Rwanda. And life in Belgium is good, surrounded by friends, family, and his beloved squirrels.
“I’m just happy that I can be part of many projects [that] show how cute and smart they are. I want to continue that because the world needs more joy,” says Niki.
New ideas are constantly popping into Niki’s mind. And he’s always looking to showcase squirrels in innovative ways. Through his photography, he’s been able to spread joy and happiness to many others, which he does by displaying his art on Instagram.
“For me, it’s a joy to make these pictures, and people are happy to see them. And I’m very blessed that I can do this,” says Niki.
For Niki, finding his passion in life was a happy accident. Photography has given him a real purpose, and he encourages others to get out there and find theirs.
“Don’t be ashamed if something fails because you don’t have to expect everything to work on the first attempt,” he says. “Don’t be scared to make a bad picture. Always try again and never be scared to fail.”