I met Leo Shumba at a dinner party of a friend in Bergen. Leo was not difficult to notice – he radiates positivity and happiness from afar. He took photographs of all of us at the party, and captivated us with his charisma.

After we got into talking, he showed me some of his latest photographs from the project “I paint flowers so they will not die”. It combines painting with nude photography, and has a very natural take on it with just a subtle spice of humor. Helt rå! * – I thought. We met again in Oslo to talk about where it all started, and why nudity is an important theme to him.

* Norwegian expression for “Really cool!”

How did you get acquainted with photography?

My uncle was a professional photographer. My mother, who is a few years younger than him, learned everything from her brother. It was all analog style, of course. She travelled around Europe for a month every year taking photos until I turned 14. My mother always had a camera with her. One summer I decided to buy a scanner for photo negatives, and I digitalized all her photos. Even today, we still look at those photographs, because they hold an important value for our family. They show not only all the travels we did, but also our beautiful childhood.

In 2009, I applied for an architecture school in Bergen, but I was not accepted. I then successfully applied to an art school for photography studies. In my first year there it was not allowed to use digital cameras. Analog was the only format allowed, which meant that I had to learn everything from scratch. We started with black and white photography, but after half a year later we were finally introduced to color photography. It was a big moment for me – I didn’t go back to black and white after that. I’ve been doing color photography for 6 years now. It challenges me, and I love colors. After all, life is so colorful.

In 2011, I was accepted to Khib (Bergen Academy of Art and Design). Before I even started, I already knew which themes I wanted to tackle, and that was nudity and body. The body is very fascinating to me, and I realized very early on that it is my passion. I took my classmate Susanne to a photo session in Svartediket, which is a mountainous area in Bergen. I wanted her to walk through the forest, take her clothes off and hold it over her head while she crosses the river. The photographs turned out just the way I wanted it. I couldn’t wait to develop the film roll, so I did it that same evening, scanned it and transferred all the photographs to my iPhone.

What are your other passions, and how do you combine it with photography?

In my third semester at Khib, I went to Barcelona for an Erasmus exchange. Everybody was painting there, thus I also decided to start painting. It was a completely new world to me, especially because in Bergen I was a photographer. I felt that I could experiment with myself in Barcelona.

I still paint today. I like to listen to classical music while I paint because it gives me a good flow. It’s my secret recipe. When I was offered the opportunity to exhibit my work at Café Opera, a very popular café in Bergen, I decided to show my paintings through my photography.

Tell me about your project „I paint flowers so they will not die“. 

The title “I paint flowers so they won’t die” is a mash of my paintings and photography. It’s a form of collaboration. When you look at it, you don’t know if you are looking at a painting or at photo portrait. I paint what I feel about a person, it’s my personal opinion about them.

Sometimes I give them objects I find in my apartment. For example, I give them a banana if I think that the person is funny. It doesn’t necessary mean that you will find it funny, but it’s something that empowers the person in the photograph. For example, if the person is shy, I will give him or her a knife, and I say “come on, you are beautiful and powerful”. It is about making them realize that they are beautiful just as they are and just as their bodies are.

come on, you are beautiful and powerful

Do you think that a naked body is a taboo in Norway?

I’m not so sure. In religion, it is. In school, I was brought up Christian, but I never really shared that point of view. Nudity is beautiful and I don’t think it should be a taboo. We are quite open to nudity in Norway, but it could be better. There are a lot of people with eating disorders here, which signals that people are not happy with their looks and their bodies. It is a very personal theme for me, because some of my closest friends have had eating disorders. Therefore, I am celebrating the body the way it is!

What do you relate the word „body” to? 

Everything about a naked body is beautiful to me. I feel that my role as an artist is to show others what is real and natural, such as the different body shapes, marks, and even cellulite. If you don’t love yourself, you can’t help others and you can’t develop yourself. It is important that everyone feels safe in their own skin.

Text: Vaida Voraitė
Pictures: Leo Shumba