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.
These are difficult times for Poland’s LGBTQ community, under siege from the bigoted ultra-conservative government and church, who due to their own weakness have turned to demonising the “homosexual monster” as enemy of the Polish nation in order to gain political support they otherwise lack.
Large counter-protests at pride marches, the national and popular distribution of ‘LGBT-free zone’ stickers, and even the arrest of artists who dare to use the rainbow in their work all add to a sense of peril.
Because of all of this, it felt like the perfect time to head to Warsaw and spotlight queer lives, to amplify the voices of the disposseed in a difficult time. The times made it genuinely difficult to find willing participants, but I eventually landed with a group of men who were bold and unfraid.
On the positive side, most told me that their lives hadn’t yet been harmed by the situation in Poland, but they all expressed worry that the worst was still to come.
The photos for this article were shot in Warsaw, Poland.
GayCities exclusively shares a selection of the photos along with a bit of behind the scenes commentary.
There were a few iconic Warsaw sites I wanted to shoot in, but perhaps none is as near and dear to a queer heart as Plac Zbawiciela [Saviour’s Square], where I met and photographed Maciek. In the spot right behind where he’s standing in this picture there used to be a giant rainbow arch, covered in flowers. It was a site that made so many LGBTQ people feel welcome in the city, but unfortunately it was destroyed by homophobic arsonists. The city rebuilt it, but it was destroyed again; then the city rebuilt it again, it got re-destroyed, and eventually the city gave up. Hate does not win though. Even without the symbolic rainbow there, it’s still a big meeting place for the gay community. As Poland suffers from a huge increase in anti-gay rhetoric from the government, the Church, and from parts of society, it’s a time to be strong and visible. The attitude of these men is: You may destroy our rainbow, but we will never disappear.
One of the funniest moments from making this issue came just a day or two before I’d sent the issue to the printers. Daniel messaged me asking if I’d decided to print any of the fully nude pictures I took of him. Horrified, I had this feeling that he was going to say he regretted it and wanted to beg me to not publish any of those pics. I quickly told him that I had, and defensively added that I’d already finished the issue and it was too late to change anything. To my surprise though he was glad. “That’s great”, he reassured me. “I think having naked gay bodies in a book about Warsaw is just the sort of homosexual propaganda that we need today.” I agree 100%!
I of Michał here is perhaps not A-list red-carpet famous, but he was on the Polish version of Masterchef and got pretty far there too. After meeting him I spent forever trying to find some episodes, or even a clip to watch of him, but I couldn’t find anything. I shouldn’t be too upset though, I did get to see him in his undies after all, and I doubt there was a naked cooking challenge on any TV cooking show ever. Though if anyone out there wants to commission one, I’m happy to consult.
Lew, or Leon as some of his friends know him, was the one guy in Warsaw who was happy to do a photoshoot in the Old Town [Stare Miasto]. Locals sometimes complain about what a grey and even ugly city Warsaw is, but when you try to get them to hang out in a truly beautiful postcard-perfect part of town, they resist. A big problem with the Old Town is that people say it’s fake, because it was completely rebuilt after the Second World War. It does admittedly have a sort of Las Vegas / Disney feel to it, but was it not right to rebuild? Besides, a lot of the city looks something like a monument to surviving the war – shouldn’t some part of it be a monument to reconstruction? Lew was the only person who seemed to agree with me, or perhaps he was just too chilled out to complain.
This picture is much more indicative of what average Warsaw looks like – a lot of concrete housing blocks. In truth, I am a big fan of that brutal ugly-pretty aesthetic that you find all over Poland. I was lucky to get it – Mateusz joined the project very late, after I decided to stay longer in Warsaw to deal with multiple last-minute cancellations I had from other guys. At that point I was in a rush and didn’t have time to think about about locations, so we just shot in Mateusz’s neighbourhood (coincidentally Lew lives in the building opposite though they don’t know each other). I’m glad I shot there, and I’m glad to have met Mateusz. He was one of the most open and don’t-give-a-f*ck guys I met in Warsaw, a perfect person to stand proud against homophobia by baring all and telling his story in Elska.
The last guy I met in Warsaw was Krzysztof, and his arrival came as a complete surprise. One of the other guys I shot for the issue, Aleksander, had told his friend Krzysztof about my project and then he messaged me in the late afternoon of my final day in the city. He said he’d love to take part, but by then I was exhausted and just wanted to get a bite to eat and relax. So I made a deal. I told him we could shoot if he came to meet me rather than me going to his place. And so he did. He turned up a couple hours later at my hotel and we did a lovely and natural shoot in my hotel room. Then we finished the night in style, with champagne and canapes at the hotel’s posh penthouse-floor executive lounge. I don’t know why but the check-in agent upgraded me and gave me free access to that lounge. After a week in Warsaw that was often difficult, it ended with a lot of luck and some well-deserved fun.
Elska Warsaw out now in a limited edition print version and in an e-version. A behind-the-scenes companion zine called Elska Ekstra Warsaw is also available.