PHOTOS: Look back at this year’s beautiful boys of Elska

Dominic N and Noah H, who appear in Elska Bern (Switzerland)

Elska is a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting a selection of everyday local guys, and introducing their city to readers through honest photography and personal stories. In the past year the project has released six issues made in six different cities, featuring ninety-one local boys and local stories.

Below, photographer Liam Campbell shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos and behind-the-scenes commentary about twelve of the men showcased in Elska over the past year.

Casablanca, Morocco: Anas A

Anas A, who appears in Elska Casablanca (Morocco)

Elska Casablanca became our thirty-fifth issue, only the second issue we’d done in Africa (following our sixteenth issue, Elska Cape Town). Because of this lack of African content, I felt compelled, obsessed even, to make another issue somewhere, anywhere on the continent. However, apart from South Africa, which I didn’t want to repeat, this is one of the most difficult places in the world to be gay. I planned but failed to make issues happen in three African cities due to security concerns, not just for myself but for the men who’d take part and the potential repercussions for having been featured in a gay magazine.

Eventually, however, I landed on Morocco, which seemed to be my North African saving grace. There I talked to multiple men online who said they’d be up for taking part and urged me to come. So I booked flights and a hotel, but in the weeks before arriving these men disappeared. I half wanted to abandon Casablanca, but since everything was paid for I came anyway and decided to try to find guys on the spot, using online dating apps to message random people and invite them for a chat/interview and photoshoot. This method worked much better than I ever imagined, but because of rife societal homophobia, only a few men were willing to show their faces in the photos. That includes Anas A, the boldest of the Moroccans I met, who not only stripped off for the camera but who did it on a public beach. Here we did actually get stopped by police, but he convinced them it was a fashion shoot for a sportswear brand, and we got away with it!

Casablanca, Morocco: Fayçal B

Fayçal B, who appears in Elska Casablanca (Morocco)

One of the most fascinating men I met in Casablanca was Fayçal, someone who is dedicated to LGBTQ+ activism and tries to amplify queer Moroccan voices through various art projects. He was frustratingly difficult to pin down though, but I managed to nab him one afternoon between two work trips in Rabat. When we met, we discussed the intricacies of living a gay life in Morocco and its great inequalities. Being able to be oneself usually means having access to a certain level of wealth – for example, those who can afford to live in their own private apartment are the only ones able to invite other queer people over, for social gatherings or intimate relations.

For many, the only way to really live freely means being able to afford holidays abroad, such as in France, or perhaps in Marrakesh (especially if spending time with foreign visitors). There is not a single gay bar or safe queer space in Casablanca, and only a couple of ‘quasi-friendly’ places where queer people hang out but still need to be very careful.

After our shoot, Fayçal took me to a bar that is frequented almost exclusively by French citizens, one of those safe-ish spaces. There his queerness, his feminine side, came alive, and it was a true joy to see. It was also a joy to see him bare all in our photoshoot; however, days later he got scared of how much he’d revealed and asked that his face not be published online. It hurts to not be able to share the full beauty of our photographs, but it hurts more to understand the fear he confronts every day for just being who he is.

Montréal, Canada: Antoine L

Antoine L, who appears in Elska Montréal (Québec) vol.2

There couldn’t have been a more stark contrast to Casablanca than the city that followed it – Montréal. The Québecois capital was the most open, bold, and sex-positive place I’d ever visited in my life. Yet these men were also fully aware of how lucky they were to be able to live so openly, to hardly ever fear homophobia in their lives, and to live in a country like Canada which is well-regarded for accepting LGBTQ+ refugees from some of the most dangerous countries on the globe. To this end, we actually ran a charity Polaroids project that gave proceeds to Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian charity about saving endangered LGBTQ+ people.

While with guys like Fayçal in Casablanca we talked about hiding and lying and being afraid; with Antoine, we just cracked open a couple of beers, got naked, and talked about bands and clubs and weekends out camping with friends.

Nevertheless, despite this carefree attitude, a good amount of the Montréal men discussed awareness of the good fortune of living in Canada, including one story about spending a summer in North Africa only to become a victim of violent homophobia. My trip to Montréal was a carefree one, but the men there were sure to remind me to never take it for granted and to be grateful.

Montréal, Canada: Logan W

Logan W, who appears in Elska Montréal (Québec) vol.2

Although Montréal is the largest city in ‘French Canada’, its population contains a large amount of English speakers. My trip however randomly seemed to end up more in the francophone side of the city, until on my final day when I was in Verdun, a more anglophone neighborhood, when shooting Logan. I’ll never forget how, as we were shooting on a residential street, a woman came outside to take out the rubbish and I instinctively said “Bonjour” to her as she walked past. She blanked me though, and it felt like a blizzard had blown straight through me. Logan explained afterward that there were a lot of angry anglos in this neighborhood and that if instead, I’d said “Hello” she’d have probably smiled brightly and tried to spark a conversation. Such moments proved that language politics still loom heavy in Québec. However, when we went to Logan’s place and met his husband I found an example of how you can move beyond the language barrier. Logan is an anglophone originally from New Zealand and his partner is a born-and-bred francophone Quebecker. Their love shows no barriers to something like language, as is very evident in this picture (and even more evident in the uncropped version of this photo).

Bern, Switzerland: Federico L

Federico L, who appears in Elska Bern (Switzerland)

Switzerland is a ridiculously pretty place, and that extends to its people (note the prettiness of the featured image at the top of this article, featuring couple Dominic N and Noah H, our ‘Elska Bern’ cover boys). I love prettiness as much as the next guy, but sometimes you can overdose on it, and this is very much a Swiss problem.

Federico was only the fourth guy I met in Bern, but by then I was already desperate for a bit of grit and imperfection. When I confessed my thoughts to him, he understood completely and offered to rescue me by taking me to a railyard for the outdoor part of our photoshoot. This was definitely a welcome respite, but it was still the cleanest, most perfect industrial patch I’d ever set foot on. I decided to give up and just embrace Swiss prettiness and perfection, which continued when Federico stripped off for the indoor portion of our shoot, showing off his perfectly coiffed hair and kissable lips in the most flattering light.

Bern, Switzerland: Fériès A

Fériès A, who appears in Elska Bern (Switzerland)

The story of Swiss perfection carried on with Fériès who I shot one late Sunday morning in Bern’s exceptionally lovely Old Town. And then when we got back to his place I found the most beautiful apartment – spacious, full of plants, and with the most glorious wood-burning fireplace. If I could find fault with my Swiss trip though it was in something much deeper than architecture or interior design. The problem was in the sense of loneliness I felt and in the sense of coldness that I perceived from the people.

On the morning of this shoot I got up early to treat myself to breakfast, but absolutely everything was closed apart from proper restaurants (it was a Sunday), which were all full of happy families and laughing groups of friends. I braved going into one alone and was abruptly turfed out (“no tables for lone diners today”), meaning I ended up wandering in the cold, desperate for at least a coffee (but not quite ready to resort to a train station takeaway version).

Unfortunately, when I met Fériès there was a certain reservedness that didn’t help when I so needed some warmth. However, just hours later we chatted by text and the walls melted away. I found someone who could be a true friend, just a few hours later than I could have hoped. The Swiss are actually very warm and kind, they just take a little bit of time to open up.

Athens, Greece: Vasilis K

Vasilis K, who appears in Elska Athens (Greece)

There are those moments when making Elska that I inevitably meet a guy who makes me go weak at the knees, and Vasilis was absolutely one of them. From the very instant I saw him, I knew he was going to be trouble. I was walking down a steep road in Pangrati on my way to our meeting location and around twenty meters ahead I noticed a cute guy with glasses round a corner and walk ahead in the same direction. I thought, “Oh please don’t let that be Vasilis”, knowing that someone who ticked my boxes would render me unable to concentrate on a photoshoot. To my dismay it was him, and I became so distracted by his gorgeous magnetism that the camera roll was full of out-of-focus, over- or under-exposed, and askew shots.

Fortunately, I mitigated this by taking literally hundreds more frames than I normally do, leaving me with a least a couple dozen usable pics! Then after the issue was published, things got even worse when Vasilis said something about going for dinner sometime if I came back to Greece, both validating my crush and making me unable to work for a full day while I drowned in my fantasy of a second Greek adventure, and of more Vasilis.

Athens, Greece: Andreas G

Andreas G, who appears in Elska Athens (Greece)

What I most hope for in any photoshoot is for the subject to reveal some of who they really are, to show their personality and passions, not just their bodies. As soon as I met Andreas I knew that we were going to create an especially illuminating series. I was at our pre-arranged meeting point outside the King George Hotel on Syntagma Square when a guy pulled up on a vibrant orange Vespa. Everyone turned their heads to look, and to my surprise, the guy riding it was calling my name. Everyone watched as I hopped on the back with embarrassing wobbliness; I did as he instructed and grabbed onto his hips, and then quickly he zipped off at break-neck speed into the city.

He ended up taking me on a tour, asking what I wanted to see. Without any concrete ideas I asked for something gritty, “somewhere with graffiti”, and suddenly we were u-turning to a cacophony of honking horns as he sought to fulfill my wishes, following this with his own, a trip to an ancient Greek palace. I also made sure to shoot Andreas with his Vespa, as it was so clearly a part of his lifestyle and a part of this special moment, but it was back at Andreas’s place that I really got to know him. It was full of art, his art, which I shot with his body, making the artwork as much a star as Andreas himself.

Singapore: Sam S

Sam S, who appears in Elska Singapore

I’ve always enjoyed the aspect of Elska being dedicated to showcasing ordinary guys, the sort of people you might meet and connect with if you were to travel to these cities. However, inevitably we’re going to shoot a few celebrities here and there. Our Elska history has included a ‘Drag Race’ alum or two, a few actors, and a couple of well-known and up-and-coming comedians like Sam See.

In a way, I actually dreaded our photoshoot. I was scared that I might be intimidated by shooting someone used to the spotlight. I was also afraid that he could be a diva and would demand a carefully-choreographed image for his photoshoot. And most of all, I was worried that he’d not know how to act in front of my camera, that he’d revert to being his funny on-stage persona and not reveal the off-stage real Sam.

Magically, we seemed to be at ease with each other and none of my worries came to be. I also learned that expecting a comedian to be funny off stage is as bad as saying to a comedian friend, “So tell me a joke!” Our shoot was rather more sexy and sultry than I imagined, though there are a few humourous bits. Like where he is photographed wearing his characteristic black glasses not on the bridge of his nose but on the shaft of his penis! Fun times!

Singapore: Falik R

Falik R, who appears in Elska Singapore

Before embarking on Singapore I was pretty worried that the Elska I’d make there would be boring. Singapore has a bit of a reputation for being overly clean and overly orderly, and it was a country where homosexuality was illegal. But I simply had no choice. Because of the strict lockdowns imposed throughout Asia, it had been ten issues since Elska had been in Asia; so when Singapore became the first country to re-open to foreign visitors, I booked tickets without really thinking. However, the resulting issue made from my trip became my most surprising Elska adventure ever, and my favourite issue of the year.

It’s sexy, it’s bold, and it’s diverse – three adjectives I’d be happy to hear used to describe my work. Despite the legal obstacles, which include the arrest of an OnlyFans star, by and large the men I met there used the opportunity I provided to be rebellious. This was particularly worth highlighting with guys like Falik, a member of the Malay community and a Muslim, where being out and gay is most difficult. Our photoshoot revealed more than I ever expected, but it was the end of the shoot that was most surprising, and most enjoyable. Straight after putting the lens cap back on my camera I ended up in a three-way hug with Falik’s partner and a still-naked Falik. That hug may have lasted a little longer than it should have!

Paris, France: Théo B

Théo B, who appears in Elska Ekstra Paris (France)

Coming from the extremely risqué and no-holds-barred adventures in Montréal and Singapore, Paris surprised me with how demure most of the men were. Théo was a perfect example of Parisian reservedness. This single frame of Théo shirtless in a park bordering Le Marais was followed by him blushing and asserting that he was far too shy to show so much skin in public, immediately putting his jumper back on. (Am I being naughty therefore to post this image here? Maybe!)

Anyway, what the Parisian men didn’t reveal visually they more than made up for in the stories they wrote for the issue. These tales were full of romance and love, every word considered and selected for full amorous impact. This may be down to the French language itself, a tongue designed for love. All but one of the stories published in Elska Paris was written in French (and followed on the next page with an English translation), and I recommend that if you can understand French that you read the French versions first. These stories are so tantalising that Théo here could be fully clothed and you’d still feel the warmth of his skin pressed against you as you read his words.

Paris, France: John B

John B, who appears in Elska Paris (France)

There’s a little secret for Elska’s future revealed by John. It’s in the wristband that he wears in this image and in the image that appears on the cover of Elska Paris. The blue and yellow there are the colors of the Ukrainian flag, a nod to the story John wrote for the issue about falling for a Ukrainian man during a visit to Kyiv before the latest explosion of war. This is also a nod to our next issue, to be released in January 2023, which was made in Ukraine. I find it so telling of the French spirit of love that John would give his space in the Paris issue not to talk about Paris or even about himself, but to pay tribute to the people he met, and loved, out East. For all the stereotypes of Parisians as arrogant, vain, and self-obsessed, I found their love wasn’t inward but outward, and absolutely overflowing.

Elska Magazine is produced in a limited edition print version as well as in an e-version. Each issue is also accompanied by a separate companion zine called Elska Ekstra which contains hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra boys and extra stories. Art prints, postcards and other collectibles are also available.

RELATED: Meet the lovely ordinary guys of Paris

Don't forget to share:

Your support makes our travel guides possible

We believe that LGBTQ+ people deserve safe vacations that allow them to be their authentic selves. That's why our City Guides aren't locked behind a paywall. Can you contribute today?

Cancel anytime · Proudly LGBTQ+ owned and operated