Liam Campbell is editor and photographer of the indie print mag, Elska, a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting some everyday local gay guys, and introducing them and their city to readers through honest photography and personal stories. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
The latest documents a trip to Montreal, Canada.
Below, Liam shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos along with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary about each.
Montreal is famous for a lot of things. In terms of cuisine, there’s anything and everything flavored with maple, and of course, there’s the rather disgusting-looking but somehow delicious poutine. If you haven’t had it, poutine is a mass of fries drowned in gravy and dotted with globs of squeaky white curd cheese. Four of the guys in the issue are either photographed with or wrote about poutine in the stories they submitted for Elska, so you know it’s got to be epic!
Then culturally, you have the music of Céline Dion, the films of Xavier Dolan, and, of course, the international phenomenon Cirque du Soleil.
Cirque du Soleil is where Vincent comes in. With Vincent, it was instantly clear that he was a performer—a very flexible one at that. The way he was always bending and making shapes during our shoot was absolutely gorgeous. It’s unfortunate that I still tend to connect the art of the circus with scary gutter-dwelling clowns and animal cruelty, despite knowing Cirque du Soleil does not represent these things. Though seeing Vincent move was so captivating, I’m convinced it’s time to open my mind and give the circus a try.
I always end up crushing over someone when traveling for Elska. In Montréal, this was Max. He was charming, he was funny, and he was just that little bit shy enough to make me want to melt his ice. The photography session I had with him was probably the longest one I did in the city. I was crushing so hard, I kept messing up the shots.
Then three things happened that turned my crush into full-on infatuation:
1) He decided, in that moment, to go naked for the shoot, which I hadn’t expected and made me even more awkward.
2) After we left his apartment to start the outdoor session, I found his parents waiting outside. They’d been banished to the courtyard to give us more privacy – when his mum saw us and sent me a cheeky ‘bonjour’ and a wink, I crumbled. Supportive parents are so sexy!
3) The last one ended me. My crush? Totally exposed! Max looked like he wanted to ask me out, but I cut him off. I made excuses about being in a rush, but in reality, I couldn’t wait to leave and escape my butterflies. Max texted me later and told me that he wanted to invite me for lunch. That would have been lovely, but I’m glad it didn’t happen. I’m not sure I could have handled it. But that lunch date is a great reason to visit the city again. Max promised to take me to a sugar shack (cabane à sucre) where you eat all sorts of traditional québecois cuisine to celebrate the annual maple harvest.
David F & Jérôme S
My time at Elska, which has included photoshoots with around six hundred different men, has forged many interesting memories. When I started this project, I had more of a fashion or lifestyle point of view, leading me to devise and direct visual stories, complete with preconceived looks and poses. But soon I became more of a documentarian, letting the story behind each shoot come naturally based on the men’s personalities, our rapport, and the mood of the moment. Sometimes, this meant getting out of my comfort zone.
When I first met David and Jérôme, they told me that they were into shibari and that they wanted to be photographed engaged in rope play. At the time I nodded but secretly hoped that it wouldn’t happen. The idea of such an act honestly frightened me. I suppose I thought it would be painful and I didn’t want to witness it. But as the shoot progressed, I could see how tenderly they engaged. I couldn’t imagine them inflicting genuine pain on each other. I couldn’t picture them doing anything with each other that I would find frightening. Still, I remained worried.
Back at their place, I wouldn’t get my escape. The ropes came out almost immediately. I stood back, got my camera ready, and told myself to just get over it. What happened however was surprisingly gentle and caring; the way that the tie-ee (Jérôme) adoringly looked into the eyes of the tie-er (David). The experience took my breath away. The immense trust it takes to share this kind of act, and the trust they showed me in me capturing it, was something truly powerful.
Back to the topic of being invited for lunch, this also happened at the end of my shoot with Princepal. Though in this case, I really was in too much of a rush to indulge. I could have easily also crushed on this guy, too. He had this incredibly sweet personality and meekness that makes me go weak. Princepal was there with his boyfriend though, which I suppose prevented any real crush from developing. He drove us to and from our outdoor location, watched supportively from the background while we did our home shoot, and also lent his body for a few romantic scenes in the bedroom.
What was most endearing about Princepal was his reason for taking part in Elska. When he heard that we were coming to make an issue in Montreal he said that it was like fate calling him. His boyfriend had some previous issues with Elska and he always wondered what it would be like to participate, but just assumed it wouldn’t happen. Now that we were going to be featuring his city, he decided that he needed to do it. It would be just the challenge he needed. He said he wanted to use Elska as a vehicle to come out of the closet. He wrote his story about falling in love with a man and revealed his sweetheart in pictures.
I’m not sure exactly how many people back in India will see this issue, but you never know! And if not, I’m happy to have helped Princepal take a step towards self-liberation.
It was a strange twist of fate when I first was contacted by Jonathan during a shoot in Casablanca, Morocco. He’d pitched a story for the Montreal issue. Though the story didn’t take place in Canada but rather was a tale from living abroad in North Africa. It was strange that he was sending me this while I myself, coincidentally, was in North Africa. He couldn’t have known that I was there.
The story that Jonathan shared was a harrowing one. He bravely illustrated the sort of difficulties and dangers one faces for being gay in the Arab world. It was the kind of story I heard again and again from the men I was meeting myself in Morocco. Instantly I knew that the story was perfect for the Montreal issue. The location didn’t matter, it was more about the spirit, about the realization he had of how lucky he is to live in Canada. It also gave a reminder that we should be grateful for what we have and that we should remember those who are less fortunate.
It was Jonathan and his story that most of all convinced me to launch a charity endeavor. For this, I snapped a variety of unique Polaroid photographs and am donating the proceeds to two very worthy causes: Rainbow Railroad (which helps persecuted LGBTQ people find safety and sanctuary) and the Peter Tatchell Foundation (which promotes and protects the human rights of LGBTQ communities around the world). I’m super delighted that many of these charity Polaroids already been have sold, and I hope I can give the fullest donation possible.
Elska Montreal is out now in a limited edition two-volume print or e-version. A companion zine Elska Ekstra Montreal is also available with outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra boys, and extra stories.