Elska is a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting some everyday local gay guys, and introducing their city to 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 Paris, the City of Love.
Below, photographer Liam Campbell shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos along with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary about each.
My first day in Paris started with a shoot that, to be completely honest, I kind of wasn’t looking forward to. Generally, I try to avoid touristy settings because I fear they’ll make the images seem cliché and commercial. But I also try to make my models happy, letting them each choose the location for their photoshoot. With Dr. Deyn, he wanted to shoot at one of the city’s most famous bridges, Pont Alexandre III, and coming along with that would be the famous River Seine and the Eiffel Tower. I tried to give other suggestions, but he wouldn’t budge.
When we actually met, things turned out much more interesting than I expected. First of all, he was game when I asked to also do shots under the bridge. And then when we crossed over to the right bank, he broke conventions by pulling down his trousers to moon the scores of tour groups trooping their way to the Petit Palais art museum. Things got even more interesting at Dr. Deyn’s apartment, and more artsy as well. Originally from Thailand, Dr. Deyn left his practice to pursue art in one of the world’s artiest cities. If you happen to be in Bangkok, there’s actually an exhibition on now of his work at Pulse Atelier.
Apart from sharing the bodies and voices of men all over the world, Elska is also known for showcasing a lot of cats in our issues. From the abundance of street cats visible in the background of our Istanbul and Athens issues, to the domestic beauties who live with our subjects, I’ve always got my photographic eye trained to find all the fair felines of the world. Romain was definitely l’homme aux chats this issue. He had two beauties in his apartment, one who hid away the entire shoot and the other who wanted to be in the spotlight pretty much constantly.
As much as I love shooting animals, they are a challenge, so I usually have to shoot a dozen frames of every scene in hopes they’ll look into the camera and not blink or wriggle away. I chose to share this shot because Romain looks super cute, even if the cat has its tongue out for some reason. Maybe ‘cos of the buttery aromas rising up from the boulangerie downstairs. I know I ended this shoot by following that scent and getting one of the loveliest chausson aux pommes I’ve ever had!
I’m usually pretty relaxed about meeting all sorts of people when doing a shoot, even the occasional minor celebrity that crosses Elska’s path. But I was really quite nervous about meeting Sylvain. Most of the guys I feature in Elska are not used to cameras and have probably never done anything beyond a selfie before. But Sylvain had loads of experience doing life modeling and plenty of bonafide photoshoots as well.
Once we actually met, I found that Sylvain was at first pretty perplexed by my style. For example, as soon as I arrived at his apartment, he offered me a coffee and I started shooting him. He looked at me with a mix of “I’m not ready yet” and “you’re crazy” but quickly he got into the flow. I suppose he enjoyed the feeling of being documented like a person instead of just a model, a mere piece of meat. Even so, the shoot is full of moments of him giving cheeky grins and little laughs.
Excluding ‘experienced models’ like Sylvain, most Elska boys tend to be pretty nervous. I always do my best to make people feel at ease, and I hear often that my very calm demeanor has a way of rubbing off on people. And when that doesn’t work, I try to make jokes to break the ice. Sometimes that doesn’t work either. Especially in this case with Kyle, who was probably the shiest of anyone I met in Paris. Plus I think he was feeling a little low because it was raining heavily during the outdoor part of our shoot, ruining the fantasy he had in his head for a springlike Jardin des Tuileries scenario.
We did our best, and I tried to reassure Kyle that a rainy shoot can be quite beautiful, but he didn’t see my point of view. However, when we got back to his place, especially after he made some tea and sat down in the living room to decompress, things felt better. We had a nice chat about the wonders of a good cup of tea to make everything better again, and about the prospects of making a future Hong Kong issue of Elska. Kyle was originally from Hong Kong, and his perspective was that it was too late to make an issue there. The city has changed too much and has become too repressive in recent years for us. Hence why he ended up living in Paris for years longer than he originally intended. As we kept drinking tea, we slowly came back to life, continuing our beautiful shoot.
One of the biggest challenges with Elska photography is that you never know what someone’s home is going to be like as a setting. Will it be spacious, will it have enough light available, will it be tidy or full of clutter? Max’s flat was perhaps the trickiest place to work in Paris, but when things get tough you have to get creative, and that’s quite exciting. For example, when we did some nude shots on the floor near his bedroom window and discovered the most ridiculous mess of cords and cables, I decided not to clear them up but to wrap them over and under his body. And when we shot in the kitchen, a tiny room that had the best natural light, he apologized for having not cleared up all the empty beer and wine bottles from the previous night’s house party. I said, “No, let’s shoot with the chaos, and reveal who you are, a messy little party animal!”
One of my favorite shots of the entire Elska Paris issue is a wide shot of all those empty bottles along with Max pulling ‘something’ out of his underwear. This image here is another of my favorites, just something silly.
Paris is a city that evokes so much to so many; a legendary place known as the City of Love, the City of Light, and also the city of rude waiters and terrible drivers. In some ways, I worried if I could capture the lore of Paris, at least in the way people expect.
I quickly let go of this pressure and discovered that most of the stereotypes, particularly the negative ones, were wrong. And John gave me all the love and light I could have dreamed of.
In fairness though, before I met John I was a bit worried. The story he wrote for the Elska Paris issue was beautiful and beautifully written, but it wasn’t about Paris. It was about a trip he took to Eastern Europe – including Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine – and the men he fell for in each place. As wonderful as his story was, I worried that it might not be ‘Paris’ enough for a Paris issue. And then when we were shooting and I noticed the Ukrainian colors wristbands he wore, I felt like he was drifting even further from the Paris theme.
However, I realized that these lovely men from the City of Light exemplified their love by showing their care for others. They weren’t the arrogant snobs that form part of the bad reputation of Parisians, but rather a people overflowing with amour.
Elska Paris is out now in a limited edition print version or in an e-version. A companion zine Elska Ekstra Paris also available with outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra stories, and six extra men who don’t appear in Elska Paris.