PHOTOS: Up close and personal with the men of gay Bern, Switzerland

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 Bern, Switzerland.

Below, Liam shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos along with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary about each.

Fériès A

Bern is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. It has the old-world charm of places like Lisbon and Stockholm, but without any of the grit beneath the surface. Quite frankly, Switzerland seems so perfect, that it made me uncomfortable at the start. Having just arrived from a long flight, I felt like I wasn’t worthy of walking its manicured streets. One of these moments came when shooting Fériès A in the UNESCO-protected Old City.

After my jaw dropped over and over with the views, he then invited me to his place, at which point my jaw went to the floor. His gorgeous apartment, with massive windows, thriving tropical plants, and the most amazing fireplace rendered me so out of it that I impolitely asked, “Why are Swiss people so rich?!”

Thankfully, he laughed off my faux pas and replied he was grateful to live there. He told me that it wasn’t anything so unusual, that it’s a pretty average apartment for Switzerland. Fortunately, by the end of my trip I was feeling less intimidated by Swiss standards, but increasingly jealous.

Fabian J

Aside from getting over my own issues of not being worthy of the wonderfulness of Switzerland, the main issue I had with making Elska in Bern was that locals tended to be rather reserved, even conservative.

Indeed, when I first announced the trip, loads of people contacted me and volunteered to take part. But then when I sent them the full details, one by one, they all ghosted. It was actually becoming such a problem that I considered abandoning the project, but then I decided to just ask one of the guys who ghosted me what the problem was and see if I could work something out.

It seemed that locals were scared off by the instruction email I sent, particularly the part that included the phrase “indoor photoshoots may contain underwear, part-nude, and nude images”. Even though I wrote “may contain”, people found the mere idea of nudity too scary to even contemplate. I decided to re-contact everyone and make it crystal clear that nudity is not an obligation, and to mention that some Elska issues have very little nudity.

I’m glad to say this reassurance worked. My shoot schedule filled up and I was set for my trip. Then something unexpected happened. Rather a lot of the guys who I met in Bern chose to pose nude anyway.

Fabian J was probably the bravest guy I met in Bern. Despite his own early worries, he ended up stripping off outside in a small wooded area behind Europlatz rail station. I put an image of that, including his cheeky smile, on the back cover of the Elska Bern issue.

Marco R

In addition to asking personal questions about incomes or scaring people off with notions of nudity, I made my greatest gaffe when I met Marco R. We were just preparing to start shooting, which was outdoors in Kocherpark, and I noticed this string hanging out from the bottom of his t-shirt. Assuming it was a headphones cable, I asked him to remove it, based on the idea that it would be a distraction, just like a mobile phone or thick wallet in a pocket is a photographic blunder.

Quite nonchalantly he said he didn’t mind taking it out, but added that he could only remove it for a little while. I was confused. After a little back-and-forth I figured out my mistake – this string was actually an insulin pump for type 1 diabetes. Upon finally understanding I insisted that he keep it on, as long as he didn’t mind revealing it to Elska.

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Damian W

Most of my shoots happened near Bern city centre, but one guy, Damian W, lived out in the fringes of Bern Canton, in Emmental. I was unfamiliar with the region, though I do love the cheese. As it turned out Damian had planned to surprise me with something cheesy for my visit, in part to thank me for making the long journey to see him. We were to indulge in one of Switzerland’s favorite wintertime dishes, raclette. Embarrassingly though, I have always been rather cheese-phobic, so I made the excuse that I was too busy to stay (sorry, Damian).

Even without our cheesy meal, we had a lovely shoot together, and after leaving his place I walked over to his nearest rail station to go back to the city. Something seemed off, the station was completely empty. Just as started to feel really confused, Damian turned up at the platform. He had a feeling that I might not understand the ways of rural Swiss trains. At stations like this trains only stop if you press a little red button on a small stand. Since trains here were only once an hour anyway, I could have been there all night if he hadn’t shown me that button. It was so nice of him to help, and nicer still that he waited half an hour with me until my train came, just chatting.

In hindsight, I should have probably given that raclette a try, I feel guilty now. Next time!

Julien J

My regular readers will know that I’m a shy guy, but something about Julien made me more timid than usual.

We had a really nice shoot together along the River Aare, Bern’s bright blue waterway, and swimming hole during the Summer months. Even on our shoot, which was on a quite cold day, we saw one woman swimming in what must have been freezing water! Julien was rather quiet and a bit awkward, but I just assumed this was normal Swiss reservedness.

However, when we started the indoor part of the photo shoot, things got much harder for Julien, and he revealed his struggles with confidence. Yet again I was meeting another gorgeous man who didn’t feel good enough, and it was crushing to see.

I wanted to prove to him that beauty isn’t connected to perfection, not even in almost-perfect Switzerland. But in this moment, I felt sad for him. I wanted to tell Julien that he was beautiful, reassure him, but I felt like I was embarrassing him.

So, I left without the tea and biscuits, thinking he’d prefer to be alone. We’ve stayed in touch, and he’s doing well; he is another reason to come back to Switzerland and take up that offer.

Dominic N & Noah H

One of my favorite aspects of Elska Magazine is the stories that each of the men I photograph write for the issues. I always instruct them to write about absolutely anything, as long as it’s authentic, and to avoid writing a standard autobiography. Sometimes this lack of specific guidelines terrifies people. With Noah and Dominic, it really sparked some creative genius.

Since they’re a couple, I told them that they could either write two separate stories or work on one together. They decided to each write a separate text about the same topic: a weekend when Dominic returned from military service to visit Noah.

I don’t want to give too much away, but reading two perspectives on the exact same incident was fascinating. It also proves how important it is to listen to each other and to recognize that there are always two sides to every story. These two seemed like such a happy couple, and their story gives some clues as to why.

Elska Bern is out now in a limited edition print version or in an e-version. A companion zine Elska Ekstra Bern is also available with outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra boys, and extra stories.

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