PHOTOS: Get up close and personal with adorable gay guys from Kazakhstan

Adorable gay guy wearing a hoodie in Kazakhstan

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 he met in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the latest issue.

Denis Z

Guy wearing a speedo crouches over an empty swimming pool.

Kazakhstan is an incredibly diverse nation, with a thriving Kazakh language amongst ethnic Kazakhs, with Russian used as the lingua franca between all citizens. I’d studied Russian at university but hardly used it in the past decade, and it would turn out that I’d need to use it a lot here, including with Denis, who didn’t speak a lick of English.

We generally got on very well with the shoot, with body language and the occasional consultation of translators on our phones filling in when my Russian failed, but there were also some amusing misunderstandings. The funniest of all came when we arrived at Denis’s home for the indoor portion of our photoshoot. As he led me into the yard behind his house I noticed this curious square pit.

I stared for a moment until I realized that this was a tiny swimming pool. Immediately I had the idea of asking him to shoot here in a bathing costume, with the contrast of the snow making for a memorably cheeky scene. But there was some confusion when I told him to put on a ‘костюм’ [‘kos-tuym’] which can signify a formal suit, and he came out holding a shirt, jacket and tie. I laughed and tried to re-explain, but this time he took everything off, wearing nothing but a face so blushed he looked like an apple. I tried one more time and this time he got it, running back into the house and returning with a cute Speedo that he said he bought for his upcoming holiday to Turkey. So cute!

Samgat A

Boy in underwear stands in front of a spotlight

Over the past several years I’ve published forty-two Elska issues made in forty-two different cities all over the world. One of the most exciting things to me about my Elska project is that I have featured so many cities that people don’t expect – in amongst issues made in gay wonderlands like Berlin or San Francisco, I’ve also featured issues made in Dhaka (Bangladesh), Casablanca (Morocco), and now here.

At first, Almaty was a complete disaster. About a month before coming I’d arranged photoshoots with a dozen local men, people I’d found mostly through networking, plus a few others I’d scouted through apps like Instagram. The first two of these guys, Zhassulan and Edward, were photographed on the first day without any issues. But on my second day of shooting, the guy I was meant to meet in the morning stood me up, and the afternoon guy ghosted me! Totally desperate, and with rising anxiety that further cancellations might come, I turned to gay apps to see if I could find replacements. To my utter delight, it turned out to be incredibly easy here to find guys willing to meet, shoot, and do a story for my Elska project.

One of these last-minute saviors was Samgat. He was excited to take part and said that if I could wait until the evening after his work, we could meet that same day. I jumped at the chance, and it became one of the most charming encounters I can remember. Samgat was constantly saying how nervous he was, how shy, how unsure he was of himself, but whenever I clicked the camera he looked so alive with confidence. It seemed he just wanted to play the part of the innocent, and he liked to be instructed on what to do. I felt during this shoot that I was fulfilling a fantasy, and I think he ended up helping me as much as I helped him.

Nicholas S

A man wrapped in a white blanket.

Another one of my last-minute saviors was Nicholas. I also found Nicholas on a gay app, and like Samgat, he was instantly on board. The problem was that his schedule was very full, meaning that we had to manage to do a two-part photoshoot (street and home) in the space of his one-hour lunch break. It would be a challenge, but one I wasn’t willing to pass up.

I met Nicholas outside his office building near the massive Dostyk Plaza shopping centre. It was a warmer than usual morning, a balmy -3°C (27°F) instead of the -8°C (18°F) I’d gotten used to so far on this trip. Because of this, the atmosphere was for once not choked with pollution from the coal-fired power plants since the heating in buildings across the city didn’t need to be cranked up so high this day. This meant that for the first time, I could see the tall mountains of the Zailiyskiy Alatau range, and it was incredibly gorgeous. Indeed when Nicholas showed up the first thing he said to me was, “Have you seen the mountains?”

Noting my glee he took me on a fast-paced walk uphill to the edge of the city where we’d have the clearest view of the peaks. There I snapped several photos on my camera, but unfortunately, they didn’t come out so crisp, with too much residual smog to render them clear in a photo. Yet what I lost in Almaty’s natural beauty was made up for with Nicholas’ natural beauty, on full display during the rushed yet lovely nude portion of the shoot.

Nan N

A boy in a purple sweater sitting on a traffic barricade.

I don’t think many people who read Elska know much about Kazakhstan. What they do know is either based on Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Borat, which is totally false; or it’s a vague recollection that this country was part of the Soviet Union, which collapsed over thirty years ago. Even though I like to think that I knew better, I suppose my expectations fell into this latter category, with images of a bleak, grey, concrete mess full of dejected-looking people still queuing for bread.

As I got to know Almaty, I discovered a pleasant and quite elegant city, full of wide avenues and a promenading culture straight out of Paris, and utterly lovely cafés to rival Vienna. But during the shoot with Nan, I discovered a scene that took me straight back to the USSR. We decided to meet near Green Bazaar, which was convenient to his home, and to do our outdoor shoot around there. I’d heard that this was one of the most bustling and evocative markets in Central Asia, but when I suggested shooting inside it, he kept trying to dodge it, preferring just the streets nearby.

Eventually, I was able to convince Nan to shoot inside the bazaar, and quickly I understood why he’d been so hesitant. Within seconds of starting to shoot him in a lane between fruit vendors and clothing vendors, a cantankerous old brute came up to admonish us. I couldn’t fully follow the conversation, but it was something about demanding a permit or government authorization to photograph there, basically a load of nonsense to elicit a bribe. Nan wouldn’t let it go, arguing back until I eventually joined in to tell him in Russian to “stop being so f*cking Soviet!” Nan chuckled when I said this, easing the tension and diffusing the argument. We left swiftly, did a few shots outside, and then headed home for the indoor part of the shoot.

Kolya K

Naked man sitting on a bed

A significant proportion of Almaty’s population of 1.7 million is made up of new arrivals from Russia, mainly young men attempting to escape being drafted into Putin’s war against Ukraine. Statistics vary, but approximately 400,000 of these men have chosen Kazakhstan as their destination of exile, with the largest city Almaty taking the vast majority, and many of these are gay men. One of these escapees who I met and photographed was Kolya K.

The start of our shoot carried a very somber tone, with Kolya describing his rush to leave his hometown of Moscow, unsure of where to go but ending up in Almaty. He was keen to express how grateful he was to be safe and welcome by Kazakhstan, but there was also this sense of uncertainty and some guilt because of how much prices have gone up, especially rent, since the Russian influx. Saddest of all was Kolya’s belief that he’d never be able to go home, both because he felt Putin would never leave (or would just be replaced by a Putin clone), and that he would eventually be punished for dodging the draft.

Despite the melancholic atmosphere when we met, once everything was off his chest the mood lifted and we ended up having a wonderful time… Long chats accompanied by multiple cups of tea and biscuits, and one of the silliest and goofiest photoshoots I’d ever done, including Kolya getting naked and wrapping his head with a duvet to mime a babooshka. This was the most wonderfully weird, and intensely moving, encounter I’ve ever had.

Aski K

Man sitting on a cement block in the snow.

The issue of Russian exiles and their effect on the lives of ordinary Kazakhs was an early theme of my meeting with Aski. Originally we’d intended to do a shoot like most Elska shoots, part outdoors in the streets and part indoors at his home, but as we worked outside Aski got nervous about going to his home, which he explained wasn’t much of a home at all.

Aski told me how he had a really lovely flat that he shared with his partner, but when his partner got sent to prison (he talks more about this in the story he wrote for the issue), he gave up the flat and moved in with his parents in the countryside for a couple of months. In the interim, the September war mobilization was announced and the flood of Russians began. Because of the massive hike in rents he was no longer able to afford an apartment of his own and had to live in a hostel. Originally we’d intended to shoot there but he got skittish, not so much because he was ashamed of his living conditions, but because he was scared of what the other men living there, many of whom were Russians, would do if they found out what we were doing.

Ultimately I invited Aski to the apartment I’d rented for this trip, we had a nice cup of tea, ate some of the biscuits that were left over from my meeting with Kolya, and de-stressed with the camera. Seeing the calm and joy on Aski’s face as we did the nude part of our photoshoot was just the most beautiful thing, and it’s so fulfilling to share this moment with Elska readers.

Picture of Elska magazine

The new Kazakhstan-dedicated issue ‘Elska Almaty‘ is available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra Almaty‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, a full behind-the-scenes diary from the making of this series, as well as three extra boys and extra stories.

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