Elska is a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting some everyday local gay guys, and introducing their city to our readers through honest photography and personal stories. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it! The latest issue documents a trip to Singapore.
Below, photographer Liam Campbell shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos along with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary about each.
Jim H + Shaun K
‘Elska Singapore’ is the 39th edition of my project, which so far has seen me travel to various cities on every continent of the world (apart from Antarctica), including seven cities in Asia. Though, it had been ages since I’d last published anything from that part of the world, due in part to the region’s strict lockdowns. So within days of announcing that it would finally, after two years, allow foreigners into the country again, I decided that gay Singapore would be the focus of the next Elska.
Before booking flights, however, I sat down and wondered if making Elska in such a place would even work. Isn’t Singapore conservative? Doesn’t it have an authoritarian government with severe censorship laws (including against nudity)? And isn’t homosexuality itself illegal? I tried to think if I even knew of any out gay Singaporeans, and I immediately thought of a couple named Jim and Shaun who have a YouTube channel called Follow Us. Some of their hotel review posts sustained me through the darkest of my own lockdowns, so I decided to message them to ask if they thought something like Elska could work there.
Not only did they reply that it sounded like a great idea, but they pointed me to ways to best contact members of the local LGBTQ community. What’s more, they also offered to do a photo shoot and story for me as well. With their encouragement, the trip was booked and the rest is history!
So, what about the ideas I had of a conservative society and a homophobic government? Unfortunately, I found this all to be true. But at the same time, there seemed to be a plethora of local queer men who were beyond tired of the status quo and wanted to use Elska as an opportunity to rebel.
I met Kris on my first full day in the city, and he instantly broke all stereotypes I had of what I thought Singaporeans would be like – closed, shy and coy. He boldly broke all the rules, baring all in a place where nudity is banned in all publications; he also wrote an out, proud and rather explicit story for us that runs foul of the government’s ban on publications that ‘attempt to normalize homosexuality; and last but not least, he chose to pose whilst vaping in a place where even the possession of an e-cigarette incurs a $2000 fine.
Kris was the first of many rebels I’d meet in the city. Because of him, I let go of my worries that Singapore was boring, that the men I’d meet there would be boring, and that the Elska issue I’d make from the experience would be boring. Far from!
One of the things that Singapore is most famous for is its diversity. The country is home to a mixture of ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indian peoples, among others, and so it was important to me that the men I’d meet in the city would represent the city’s demographics faithfully. Fortunately for me, this wasn’t really a problem – Singapore ended up being one of the easiest cities to find participants than I’ve ever tackled for Elska, and people from all groups wanted to take part.
However, when I met Falik he explained that there are more difficulties for some communities than others to be out. He and his partner, who I met during our photo session, talked about the extensive LGBTQ activism they’d been involved in over the years, and how there haven’t been repercussions for these activities. Although the country is exploding with advocate groups trying to make the place better for its queer citizens, with organizations like Young OUT Here and Pink Dot in the lead, that doesn’t mean activism is safe. Falik told me about the huge amount of abuse he received after posing in an embrace with his same-sex partner for an article on gay Singapore. But that didn’t stop him from doing a shoot with us, and it doesn’t stop him from continuing to make himself seen and heard in his city whenever he can.
Coming out is the greatest service one can do to further the acceptance of LGBTQ people, but it’s not always easy. The courage of men like Falik to take part in Elska and any queer media shouldn’t go unappreciated.
Elska is known for focusing on everyday people, the sort of people you might meet if you traveled to the city featured in each issue. Though sometimes a local celebrity sneaks in, like comedian Sam See here.
Sam was the first person I met in Singapore, and our shoot was one of the most unusual I’ve ever done. Rather than meeting him at his home, which is where I shoot most Elska subjects, he decided to sneak me into a theatre where he was working before they opened. We did some shots in the empty auditorium and then he took me into a dressing room, took out a bottle of Maker’s Mark (for courage), and stripped all the way down to just a bow tie!
By the way, I chose to share this picture after meeting an Elska reader recently at an art book fair in Germany. He saw our Singapore edition on the table and before even picking it up he said, “Hmm, I actually saw a gay Singaporean comedian once in Muscat. He came onto the stage and the first thing he said was, ‘Are there any gays in the house? Give me a shout!’, which shocked me considering this was in a country like Oman. Oh, and I remember he was wearing a bow tie.” I then flipped open ‘Elska Singapore’ and showed him a pic of Sam, complete with the bow tie. “Wow, that’s him!”
Sam wasn’t the only person to do a photo shoot away from home. I’m not sure if it’s a case of wanting to be discreet or not wanting family or flatmates to be disturbed, but a good number of the guys I shot in the city didn’t want to use their homes at all. Immediately I was devastated, but these men had their own solution – they’d get their own hotel room for the shoot and then have a little staycation in the city. Staycations in Singapore became very popular anyway during the pandemic – this is a population who normally loves to travel abroad, so much so that when COVID-19 arrived Singapore Airlines started offering flights to nowhere just so people could experience being on an airplane and eating a meal off a tray!
Anyway, Musha was one of the people I met who chose to get a hotel room for the shoot. Interestingly his reason for getting a hotel was rather specific – he didn’t have a bathtub at home and he had a fantasy of being photographed in a bubble bath. At first, I thought it sounded a bit clichéd, but I also felt that I owed it to Musha to fulfill his fantasy considering the expense and effort he made to book a hotel room. To my surprise, the shots were epic, and one of the images from this scene is in my top ten favorite Elska photographs of all time. I can’t share it here though, it’s far too naughty!
Another one of the things that Singapore is famous for is food, especially its incredible hawker centers, which are huge food courts full of street food vendors. And also its crazy hot and humid tropical climate. Indeed after an hour of sweating through the midday sun during the outdoor portion of our shoot, Randall’s partner Julian forced us to take a break. Around the corner from where we were shooting was a fantastic local hawker center where he sat us at a table directly under a fan and then got some ice-cold cups of calamansi juice. It was just what we needed to refresh before heading to Randall’s place for the indoor part of the shoot.
Once back home, and into Randall’s air-conditioning, the clothes came off and Randall showed off as well. I don’t mean just his body though, but also his incredible flexibility. Once I later read the story he wrote for the issue it all made sense – he works as a circus performer and is one of the few male performers in the entire country to boot. I met Randall on my last day in Singapore, and the show he gave me made for an excellent close to an amazing visit. I also used his shoot to close the amazing issue I made there.
Elska Singapore is out now in a limited edition print version or in an e-version. A companion Elska Ekstra Singapore is also available with outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra boys, and extra stories.