PHOTOS: Meet the local guys of Bangkok, Asia’s queerest city

Male model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

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 Bangkok, Thailand for the latest issue…

Dao fah

Model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

Bangkok is one of those places where, even if we’ve never been there, we can have a lot of clear ideas of what it’s like. This city, whose official name is ‘กรุงเทพมหานคร’ (Krung Thep Maha Nakhon), which translates as ‘the great city of angels’, tends to have a reputation that is far from angelic. But many of the stereotypes of hedonistic debauchery date back to the late 1960s when a red light district developed to serve an influx of US military personnel. This district, called Patpong, remains the source of an infamous reputation that foreigners put upon the entire city. But during my fortnight here to shoot this Elska issue, I found a place and people much more demure, reserved, and ‘normal’ than I ever imagined.

My first photoshoot was with Dao fah, and although the image here may suggest that Bangkok is indeed a city of queer abandon, the reality is that this was the final photo we took during our few hours together, and it took a lot to get there. Certainly, Dao fah had a fantasy of wearing this beautiful red cheongsam, also known as a qipao, which he brought to our shoot in a nod to the recent Chinese New Year celebrations. But when we met, the nervousness of wearing a dress in the busy Bangkok streets took over. It was only when we were indoors, just finishing our photo shoot, that I suggested he put it on just for me. After he put it on, bathed in the most gorgeous natural light, I snapped a quick photo and showed him how lovely he looked. He agreed, and this shot of confidence convinced him to go down to the street and shoot in the dress after all. I had to shoot quickly though – the gazes from onlookers eventually broke down the confidence and the beautiful but brief moment subsided.

Chang C

Male model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

‘Elska Bangkok’ is the forty-third issue I’ve published, each made in a different city. The general principle for selecting participants is that anyone is welcome to be part of the project as long as they live in the city being featured, regardless of age, origin, or look. But occasionally people slip through who don’t technically belong. That was the case with Chang, who didn’t actually live in Bangkok but had travelled there just to take part in the project.

My first clue that something was wrong should have been when Chang asked if we could do the indoor portion of our photoshoot in my hotel room. However, at the time I just assumed that he lived with family or flatmates and didn’t feel comfortable doing a nude shoot in their presence. But the reality was that we couldn’t shoot at his home because that home was 362 miles away in the northern Thai ‘capital’ Chiang Mai, a city that’s becoming super trendy, especially for digital nomads and which was nearly chosen as this issue’s target rather than Bangkok. I suppose Chang shouldn’t be in this issue, but in the end I couldn’t begrudge him a spot considering how much effort he put in to be part of it.

Bond T

Male model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

One of the concerns with shooting in a city like Bangkok, or in any city really, is to be careful in how you portray it. As a Brit who’s very much used to English landscapes, Bangkok comes as quite a visual shock, and this difference is incredibly exciting for me. However, it can be disrespectful to focus your photography in a way that highlights ‘exoticism’ at the expense of reality. I was especially reminded of this when meeting Bond.

The evening before our session we were lowkey arguing about our shoot location. Even though I usually like the subjects to choose their own settings, Bond kept suggesting this place called True Digital Park and I kept trying to stir him away. From Google Maps it just looked too pretty, too clean, too bland. But then I understood that Bangkok is a modern, developed city like any other, with its tony bits and its tawdry bits, and that I should be willing to show both sides.

In the end, I agreed to his request, and it turned out that this area was a perfect microcosm of Bangkok… gleaming new glass skyscrapers surrounded by manicured lawns, and then twenty meters beyond a dirty half-crumbling building next to a patch of tropical scrub. It’s this mix that makes the city so enthralling, and what proves how dynamic it is.

Natthasit B

Male model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

In general, I found the men I met in Thailand to be shy, some of the shyest in fact of any Elska city tackled yet. Natthasit was no exception. When we began our session, standing on an ordinary residential street near Udomsuk BTS station, it was almost a struggle to get Natthasit to look anything but terrified in front of the camera. To think that just a couple hours later we’d be doing one of the most weirdly wonderful scenes together, with him in his underwear and sitting on top of a mannequin whilst cheekily pulling its trousers down…

Before I started Elska, I was focusing my career on fashion photography. I had long been inspired by the great fashion editorials, with their evocative and creative ways of not simply selling clothes but selling identities and lifestyles. But the reality, behind the scenes, did feel soulless and utterly fake. That’s why I started my Elska project with a focus on not shooting models but rather ordinary people whose moods, expressions, and personalities would be anything but contrived.

Of course, the danger of this approach is that newbies can be so rigid and nervous that all the photos just look awkward. I believe that sometimes awkwardness is OK, insofar as it’s natural, but fortunately, in my experience, shells get broken rather quickly during the intimacy of a photoshoot. The first few dozen frames probably will always look stiff, but by the end, the magic almost always arrives. It certainly did with Natthasit.

Hamza S

Male model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

Bangkok is absolutely one of the queerest cities in Asia. For many decades it’s been a haunt for LGBTQ+ travellers all over the world seeking a place where they can feel safe and free to be themselves. For locals however, the state of LGBTQ+ rights have lagged behind, and traditional and conservative tendencies in society have also held things back somewhat. However, things seem to be changing fast (for the better), and Thailand is turning into the new gay beacon of Asia.

It’s this combination of reputation and reality that brought Hamza, a native of Morocco, to Bangkok. After he was outed by an ex-lover back home, he was beset with serious threats to his safety and had to flee. (We previously published an issue in his country – Elska Casablanca – and unfortunately we shared many more stories there revealing how hard it is to be gay in Morocco). He first fled to Turkey, then tried a couple countries in the Arab world, before landing in Bangkok, where he’s been living for more than a year. Sadly, he’s still unsure if he’ll end up here in the long term; it’s hard to say how long it might take to feel ‘at home’ again. Hopefully one day things will change enough in Morocco for him to return, but until then, at least he is physically safe here.

Om T

Model poses for the camera in Bangkok.

Another goal of Elska, other than not showcasing professional models, is to not privilege focus on celebrities. However, sometimes exceptions end up being made. As a longtime personal fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race, I really fell in love with the spin-off Drag Race Thailand. The commitment to true high artistry, the genuineness of the camaraderie between the queens, and the insanely incredible runway looks makes the Thai franchise a highlight. And my favourite Thai queen from the start was Amadiva.

I can recall the precise moment when in love with Amadiva. It was during a confessional where she talked about the difficulties being a dark-skinned person in Thailand, and how she was using drag to perform a defiant confidence that would inspire others. After that I followed Amadiva and sent a gushing fan letter. Then a few years later when I went to Bangkok to make an Elska there I decided to write again and just ask if by any chance Om, the man behind the diva, would be keen to do a shoot and story for it.

To my ecstatic delight, he said he’d been a fan of my work as well for ages and hoped we’d one day come to Bangkok. It became difficult to actually meld our schedules though, and it looked as if our meeting actually wouldn’t come to pass, but then on the final day of shooting in Bangkok, we managed to make it work. Our shoot, and the story he wrote for us, are definite highlights of the issue. As is this scene of him wearing a dress he actually borrowed from his grandmother!

Elska Magazine Bangkok front and back covers.

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

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