PHOTOS: Meet the gay men surviving in war-torn Ukraine

Elska is a project centered on traveling around the world, meeting a selection of everyday local guys, and introducing their city and their lives to readers through honest photography and personal stories. Below, photographer Liam Campbell shares exclusively with GayCities a selection of photos and behind-the-scenes commentary about some of the beautiful men of Ukraine.

These men, clearly traumatized, were still resilient and determined to enjoy the freedoms that living in an open society allows – Russia, under Putin of course, is a dire threat not just to the independence of the country and its fledgling democracy but also to the limited freedoms the LGBTQ+ community has carved out for itself in the war-torn nation.

Although much of the world didn’t really notice the war in Ukraine until February 2022 when Russia greatly escalated its campaign, the war had been ongoing since 2014 following Russia’s seizure of Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. The ‘Elska Lviv’ issue was actually made in two parts: A little over half of the men featured were met and photographed during the earlier phase of the war, and the rest came to our project in late 2022.

Sasha K [Саша К]

One of the first men I met in Ukraine was Sasha. We started our photoshoot in the streets of Lviv’s gorgeous old centre, but my strongest memory of the afternoon was when we wandered through a small alleyway and stumbled across a massive bit of graffiti that read ‘ПТН ПНХ’. This is a shortened version of the phrase ‘Путин, пошёл на хуй’, which translates to roughly, ‘Putin, go f*ck yourself’. Sasha instinctively stood next to it to pose, and I shot several frames of him there. Some of these showed him sticking up a middle finger too, and one of these pics graces the back cover of the ‘Elska Lviv’ issue.

After the outdoor shoot, we headed home and made some tea. At this moment I handed Sasha a box of shortbread biscuits that I’d brought from home in England as a gift to each of the participants. I’ll never forget how as my assistant Andriy and I were setting up the camera and lights Sasha ate the entire box! If I ever get to visit Lviv again I’ll be sure to bring him some more.

Marko K [Марко К]

Marko was one of the men we photographed toward the beginning of the war. While editing, I became a bit uneasy about the impression we would leave. Would people see Marko standing amongst the detritus of destroyed buildings and feel like we were somehow glamorizing the war? Perhaps some would, but the reality is that we shot these scenes on the site of a former Soviet industrial complex.

In this context, there was a clear message that the Soviet Union was well and truly over. There Marko was walking proudly over the rubble, asserting a new Ukrainian future. This is a message I absolutely had to share, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel immense sadness when I imagine how much of Ukraine now lies in ruins, at the hands of a campaign to bring back Soviet-style ‘glory’ and [Russian] supremacy.

Alex S [Алекс С]

One of the newer additions to the ‘Elska Lviv’ project was Alex S. He was photographed by Andriy Melnyk, someone I met, photographed, and got loads of help from during my first trip to Ukraine. In fact, the shoot with Alex came about by Andriy’s insistence that we shouldn’t publish an issue made in the first phase of the war without getting content from the new phase. He felt that contemporary voices and bodies should be shared, partly as a way of proving that Ukrainians are still here, still living their lives, still needing our attention. So one day last August, Andriy met up with his friend Alex, talked about the idea of shooting, and before he knew it he was undressed in front of the camera, sharing his beauty and a shy smile to lift our spirits during these tough times.

Serhii M [Сергій М]

Serhii was another recent addition to the issue. When we met he told me about having come originally from Mariupol, one of the most brutally decimated cities in Putin’s war. He also told me about his coming out story, which happened in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and how he worries for all his friends there. This is the theme of the story he wrote for the issue, which is published in Ukrainian and followed by an English translation.

One of the sweetest moments from our meeting came after we finished the photoshoot. As I was putting my camera away and Serhii was getting dressed he noticed that I had a small pin depicting a heart atop a Ukrainian flag. He asked if he could take a few more pics whilst holding it, so I got my camera back out and stood him by the light of the bedroom window. He instinctively pressed the heart against his chest and the resulting photograph came to become the cover for the issue.

Semen M [Семен М]

Semen (which is pronounced ‘seh-men’, it’s like the Ukrainian version of the name ‘Simon’) was the last guy I met during my early trip to Ukraine. He brought a lot of joy and sexiness to a city I utterly fell in love with. During that final shoot, it felt like a celebration, with Semen constantly smiling, being cheeky, being just pure fun. You could totally tell that he enjoyed his modeling moment, even showing off his Tyra Banks-style “smizing” skills (and maybe a “booty tooch” as well). When the shoot was over, he gave me a big hug and it filled me with such warm feelings for Ukraine that will never go away.

I lost touch with Semen shortly after our first meeting, but the last I heard he was planning to move to Poland to attend a university there. I don’t know what city he went to, or if he’s still there, but I certainly hope he’s OK. I tried my best to check up on all of the men who I met during the pre-2022 phase of this project, and most of them reported being safe, albeit very shaken up. But a few, like Semen, I don’t know where they ended up.

Mykola K [Микола Х]

The final participant for ‘Elska Lviv’ arrived through a little bit of algorithmic magic. One day in October as I started to edit the issue, I was listening to a Ukrainian mixtape I made. When it ended, Spotify did its thing and started playing random music I didn’t know, and then one song came on that really caught my attention. It was called “Keruvaty” and was by an artist called Mykola. As I looked at the cover art for the single I just had this sense that he was queer, and then I found him on Instagram and decided to message him. I told him about my work and said how great it would have been if he could have done a photoshoot and story for us.

To my surprise and delight, he replied moments later saying he was currently in the US, having escaped the war, and that he’d love to be a part of the issue. A few weeks later we were together. His photo series and story make for a very fitting, if slightly controversial, ending to ‘Elska Lviv’. Now, I really can’t imagine the issue without him. I’m so grateful to him, to all the people who made this edition happen, and also to the magic of Spotify.

The new Ukraine-dedicated issue ‘Elska Lviv‘ is available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra Lviv‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales, extra boys, and extra stories.

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