UPDATE: Due to the Coronvirus pandemic, it is not considered safe to meet up with strangers quite yet. However, there’s nothing wrong, as they say, about looking at the menu as long as you don’t order. These regular guys, handpicked for shoots around the globe, will help you fill in the time before it is safe to venture out and about again.
The photographic subjects for this article were hand-picked by Liam Campbell from the first four years of the magazine project, Elska, to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary last year.
Liam generously agreed to share them exclusively with GayCities along with a bit of behind the scenes commentary on some standout moments.
Aarash K (Mumbai, India)
I often site Mumbai as my favorite city. It was uncomfortably hot, crowded, and simply overwhelming, but also unforgettable and full of some of the most lovely people I’ve ever met. One of the participants offered me dinner with his family, another invited me to the beach after our shoot, and pretty much all of the guys’ mothers and grandmothers were bringing me tea when I came over to shoot. Aarash’s session was particularly memorable though. We started by me getting on the back of his moped so he could tour me around potential shoot locations, then he took me to a café for afternoon tea, then we went to meet his friends, and I almost managed to stay along for dinner if I didn’t have to get to another shoot. I never felt so welcome as in Mumbai, and I can’t wait to return to India one day.
Kolbeinn H (Reykjavík, Iceland)
Conducting a photoshoot out in the middle of a city is interesting enough as jobs go, but when it’s only 2 degrees outside and the subject is half-naked, you really have to pinch yourself. Somehow Kolbeinn managed to neither look cold nor to lose his focus even as the wind howled and as traffic started to slow to watch. It was a Sunday morning and apparently, it’s a popular pastime for older Icelandic couples to cruise in their cars along the harbourfront. They got a somewhat more beautiful view than usual that morning.
Tammie B (Los Angeles, USA)
Over the years, Elska’s become known for not featuring models and celebrities, but it’s never been the case that these people weren’t welcome. It’s just that these sort of people don’t often see the value of a little indie arty publication like this one. Before I got to LA I knew that it was possible I’d end up meeting some celebs just because they’re such a part of the fabric of the city. A couple of them turned out to be egomaniacs, and unfortunately, their shoots had to be canceled when their demands for trailers and MUAs showed a huge misunderstanding of what I am all about. Of course, some celebrities are still human, and that includes the surprisingly down-to-Earth Tammie Brown. When I got to his house he greeted me with a big hug, put on a pot of coffee, and then toured me around his rather ordinary neighborhood hotspots, including the local 99c store and a little playground where he played on the swings as I snapped the camera. It was such a sweet day.
Myeongjin K and Y.E.S (Seoul, Korea)
One of the most incredibly fun and exciting cities I ever visited was Seoul, but it was also perhaps the most difficult place to shoot. Despite over ten million people and the biggest gay scene in Korea, the number of men who were out, or out enough to feel comfortable being published in a magazine was tiny, making it very hard to find guys for the issue. Furthermore, there was this ludicrously oppressive standard of beauty that the men seemed to be subjected to, meaning that even if they wanted to take part, they kept insisting they were too ugly or uninteresting. I tried to reassure them, but they weren’t listening to me. Luckily with the help of some local LGBTQ activists (like Myeongjin here on the right) and a few local drag queens, the word managed to spread and we made it a success. Korea is opening up more and more, but it’s a slow process.
Nikolas L and Pieterjan V (Brussels, Belgium)
It’s always a pleasure to meet a couple. Even though there’s some difficulties getting two people to coordinate for a photo, the results of seeing a happy loving gay couple in their home environment are worth it. One common challenge is that one half of a couple tends to be shier than the other, meaning you constantly have to pause while the couples argue about what to reveal, and this was definitely the case with this Brussels couple. At first, it was easy because the shots were very simple – them sitting on the sofa together, having a laugh, drinking tea – but then when we moved to the bedroom it got tricky. Let’s just say that Pieterjan (the one on top) got a little bit frisky, and although I tried to shoot what was going on for a while, eventually my natural shyness took over. I ended up putting my camera away and sneaking out, and left it to my imagination what happened next.
Sonwabo S (Cape Town, South Africa)
When Elska started I wanted each of the issues to be really different from the one preceding it, so I tried to choose cities that were geographically or demographically diverse. However, my choice of locations was also subject to a really tight budget. It took some time but eventually, we managed to save enough funds to shoot an issue on every continent (except Antarctica), including Africa, which was somewhere I always wanted to go. Sadly, Africa is one of the most difficult places in the world to be gay, and a lot of the region is simply too unsafe for me or for the participants due to incredibly high levels of social and political homophobia. South Africa however, and particularly Cape Town, is safe, free, and is a real beacon of hope for all queer Africans. I can’t wait to get back to Africa, even if it’s to another city in South Africa. Johannesburg maybe?
Marcin Z (Szczecin, Poland)
One of the things I like about photography is the spontaneity of the images. I like to treat each photoshoot like a documentary, leaving it up to each participant and to the mood of the moment where we shoot, how we shoot, and what he wears or doesn’t wear. Due to social differences between cities, naturally we end up with some issues that have a lot of nudity (our two Latin American issues, Guadalajara and Bogotá, have the most) and some that have very few guys who want to bare all (two of our Nordic issues, Reykjavík and Helsinki, have the least). Although I enjoy going with the flow, I did get a bit annoyed at how shy everyone in Helsinki was. That’s why a few days later on a side trip to visit friends in Berlin I took my camera on a day trip to the Polish city of Szczecin. When I arrived I turned on a gay dating app and started messaging strangers to ask if they wanted to do a shoot and story for us. Two guys agreed straightaway – Beniamin and Marcin – both of whom weren’t the least bit shy. So I ended up adding them to our Helsinki issue and looked forward to one day doing a full issue somewhere in Poland. Stay tuned for that.
Daniel D (Los Angeles, USA)
While it’s not our biggest seller by any stretch, our Los Angeles issue is truly one of the best, both for the hard work the men put into their stories, and especially for the photography, which just somehow flourished under the California sun. Photography is technically all about using light, something that Daniel here, a photo-artist himself, understood well. I remember sitting in his kitchen, happily chatting but also aware that he seemed to be killing time. Eventually, I asked if we should get started, so he went over to look out the window and said, “Yes, the sun is in the right place now.” He then took me up to his bedroom where at that moment the sun was streaming through his blinds, creating a zebra light effect. I quickly sat him in the mix of sun and shadows and starting clicking the camera.
Yosh N (Yokohama, Japan)
I definitely can’t make a list of my favorite moments without mentioning the Yokohama issue, which I shot along with my husband serving as an assistant and designated bag-carrier. My husband is kind of a Japanophile, and he used to always bring up stories from a business trip he once took to Yokohama, which is Japan’s second-largest city. I imagined that if I ever did an issue in Japan, it would be Tokyo or Osaka, or maybe even Sapporo, but I ended up going for Yokohama, in part to surprise him and invite him along. We ended up having a great time but of course, we also did a lot of work dealing with some of the shiest people I’ve ever met, Yosh here being a happy-go-lucky exception. Making an issue in Japan has its challenges, but it’s also super fun.
Gabriel P and Mario A (Bogotá, Colombia)
Another of my absolute favorite issues to make was our trip to Bogotá. It was truly one of the most stereotype-breaking places I’ve been. I remember how horrified my grandmother was when I told her I was going there, after which she started to tell me horror stories that I presume she stole from episodes of “Narcos.” In reality, Bogotá is one of the coolest and gayest places I’ve ever been, and quite safe too in my experience. But the people really are what made it special. They were some of the most open and up-for-it I’ve met, including Mario (the one in front), who I was meant to shoot alone, but when I casually asked his boyfriend Gabriel if he wanted to join rather than sit staring at us from the sofa, he promptly undressed, wrapped his arms around Mario, and looked right into the camera. Magic.
Victor UK (London, England)
Ok, so I meant to give my top ten images, but I’m adding one more. Consider it an ‘honorable mention’ bonus shot. London is my hometown, and when I shot our Elska London issue it was my first time back in the city after moving to the USA two years earlier. Unfortunately, it became one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve had – the schedule was just too busy, the commuting and crowds exhausted me, and frankly a good number of the guys I met were moody AF. This isn’t really a surprise if you’re used to London, but I guess I sort of forgot after the time away. Anyway, Victor was a total ray of sunshine in an otherwise grey experience. If it wasn’t for him I’d have probably jumped into the Thames. Cheers, Victor!
Liam Campbell is editor and photographer of the indie print mag, Elska, a project that involves traveling around the world, getting to know some regular local guys, and introducing them and their city to the world through honest photography and personal stories. This month the project marks its fourth anniversary, so far comprising twenty-four issues in twenty-four cities and more than four hundred photographic subjects.
Issues of Elska Magazine are available, both in a limited edition print version and in an e-version. Signed art prints, annual subscriptions, and a behind-the-scenes bonus zine called Elska Ekstra are also available.