PHOTOS: 8 gorgeous global gays to mark 8 years of Elska Magazine

two shirtless men in bed
All photos courtesy of Liam Campbell for GayCities

Elska is a project centered on producing beautiful print publications, each made in a different city, and dedicated to sharing the bodies and voices of diverse men from LGBTQ+ communities all across the world. The photographic subjects for this article were hand-picked by Elska’s editor and chief photographer Liam Campbell from the first eight years of the project to celebrate their anniversary this month.

Liam generously agreed to share them exclusively with GayCities along with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary on some standout moments…

Sasha K (from Lviv, Ukraine)

Shirtless man posing by a window.

The very first issue of Elska was made in Lviv, Ukraine. The initial concept was to travel to some city in the world, and then just meet local men spontaneously, do a photoshoot, and publish a short story to go with their photo spreads. Sasha was one of the first guys I met. He was incredibly happy-go-lucky, someone who took part simply because he fancied some nice photos of himself to use on dating apps, and also because doing a photoshoot seemed like a fun thing to do.

We started our session by walking around Lviv’s beautiful city centre, with him showing off a few different pieces of his favourite outfits and showing off the gorgeous old streets. And then we went back to a small apartment I rented with a friend opposite the Opera House, where we did some shots of him in his underwear on the stairwell. Then we went inside, had a cup of tea, noshed on some biscuits, and had a chat enabled by Ukrainian interpreter and assistant Andriy. During this chat, we discovered that Sasha fancied doing a nude shoot as well. At the time nudity was something I’d been open to but didn’t really expect for Elska, and over the years we’ve had a lot of guys open to revealing all of themselves… but it all started with Sasha.

In early 2023 we published a new edition of Elska Lviv, this time adding new subjects from the now war-torn country, including a couple of Ukrainian refugees and some who stayed behind. We also tried to get in touch with as many of the subjects from our original trip as we could, but sadly we remain unable to report on all of their situations. They all of course remain in our hearts.

Raj B (from Dhaka, Bangladesh)

A man in a black and red jockstrap

One of my key goals for my Elska project is to showcase cities that we don’t often think about in terms of LGBTQ+ life, if we even think of them at all. One of the most striking examples of this commitment to highlighting such under-known places was the Elska Dhaka issue I made.

Because Bangladesh is a country where homosexuality is illegal, and one where homophobic hate crimes are well-known and severe, this was an issue I approached very differently from others. In particular, I had to pay attention to how the subjects were recruited, both because I wanted to ensure our safety and because I wanted to be sure they’d understand exactly what they were agreeing to. To this end, I contacted a local LGBTQ+ organization, and they took control of spreading the word to local men who felt safe enough to risk being published in a gay magazine. A couple of these guys were of a social class that they felt protected them, a couple were guys who’d been granted asylum elsewhere and would be out of the country before the issue was published, and then there was Raj, who felt safe as a member of the city’s substantial Hindu minority.

My shoot with Raj was certainly a highlight of the trip, which took place in Tanti Bazar, the centre of the Hindu community in Dhaka. In a city full of colour, noise, and chaos, this was the most vibrant, loud and crazy area of all. We tore down the winding streets, avoiding speeding mopeds and rickshaws, squeezed through markets, and then hopped onto a wobbly little boat that sped us across the river to Raj’s apartment, a little oasis of calm where we did our indoor shoot. It was an amazing day, but the best part was how Raj graciously accompanied me back into the city to make sure I’d get back to my hotel alright. Such a gentleman!

Devlin J and TeeJ (from Atlanta, Georgia)

A man proposing to another man in their kitchen.

Over the past eight years I’ve published forty-three issues made in forty-three cities across the globe, and most impressive of all, I’ve photographed 695 people in total. Of course, that means there are countless memories, but one of the most unforgettably special moments happened for Elska Atlanta during the shoot with couple Devlin J and TeeJ.

We did the outdoor portion of our shoot in an expansive parkland called Cascade Springs, a place where these guys used to hang out often when they first got together. At one point, when I was shooting them next to a waterfall, a woman came up and asked if we were doing an engagement shoot. Devlin looked mortified and TeeJ blushed like you couldn’t even imagine… “No, it’s for a gay magazine doing an issue about Atlanta.” It was such an awkward moment, but one that would turn so joyous when at the end of the shoot, Devlin actually got down on one knee to propose marriage to TeeJ. It turns out it was an engagement shoot after all!

Matt M (from Belfast, Northern Ireland)

A man with long hair and tattoos wearing green boxers

For a project where travel is absolutely integral, the pandemic was a huge blow. Fortunately, I happened to shoot two future issues in January 2020 before the world shut down, and then I was able to do a reissue of a past edition to fill in the gap a bit. But when it became clear that this pandemic was going to stick around, I had to figure out some way to travel.

My solution was Belfast. Even though I lived in the USA at the time, as a British subject the travel ban for US people to the United Kingdom wouldn’t apply to me. I’d just have to self-isolate on arrival for two weeks, which I did in a little apartment in Belfast, and then I’d take the third week to shoot. As it turned out, finding willing participants in this still rather conservative town was very hard, so it was lucky I had that two-week period to search. I was eventually able to find around a dozen brave souls, with the bravest and least conservative among them being Matt M. He ended up lending his body and his stereotypically Irish ginger hair to the Elska Belfast cover, making one of the most beloved (if in a marmite sort of way) covers we’ve ever had.

Artur K (from Almaty, Kazakhstan)

A person sitting on a small yellow couch.

One of the most recent issues was made in Kazakhstan… On my bedroom wall at home, I have one of those world maps with pins in each city I’ve visited for Elska, and there was this huge gap over Central Asia. I had no clue if it would be even possible to find guys there willing to be in my magazine, but I felt I had to try, and just decided that if it didn’t work I’d at least be able to say I’d been there.

Armed with my Russian language skills, which I have a master’s degree in but hardly ever have been able to use since leaving university, I vowed to do my utmost to persuade the boys of this multicultural “city of apples” to step in front of my camera and write a story for me. In the end, it proved exceptionally easy – guys were easy-going and curious enough to try it, especially with the knowledge that the magazine would unlikely ever be sold or even seen in Kazakhstan, a country with a rather homophobic and traditional society.

The most concern I had from any of the men I shot for Elska Almaty came from Artur K, a native of neighbouring country Uzbekistan who came to Kazakhstan to escape a much more virulently homophobic society. Interestingly he made it a condition of our shoot that I promise not to sell the mag to anyone in Uzbekistan, just in case his family might find it. I agreed, but then a few months later when I discovered he had a public Instagram account out there which didn’t hide his sexuality we chatted again and he decided to retract his request. Nevertheless, I’ve still not sold a copy of this or any issue to anyone in Uzbekistan!

Musha S (from Singapore)

Man in a bubblebath

One of the most surprising issues I’ve ever made was in Singapore. At the time of shooting, this was a country where homosexuality was illegal, and one where locals were actually being arrested for stuff as seemingly innocuous as having an OnlyFans account. So I expected the issue to be very demure, maybe even with guys not revealing their faces in the photos, and with stories full of dark, despairing tales. What actually happened was shockingly the opposite.

Elska Singapore turned out to be the most naked and most naughty issue made in any Asian city we’d tackled, and actually one of the rudest of any issues at all. It’s like the guys were so tired of their government’s heavy-handedness that they chose to use my project as a form of rebellion. And it seems they were right to do so – during the same month that the issue was published the country voted to decriminalize homosexuality. The sale of my publication, however, remains illegal under the “Undesirable Publications Act,” but I know several Singaporeans who have got their hands on copies, and haven’t heard of any getting in trouble for it… yet!

Jessie F (from San Francisco, USA)

A man in a pink jockstrap

As naughty as my Singapore series was, naughtier yet would be my forty-first issue, made in the legendary queer global capital, San Francisco. And one of the baddest boys of the issue had to be Jessie F, who really “enjoyed” the shoot and was happy to show the proof to the camera. But this shoot almost didn’t happen at all.

Jessie was the final shoot I had scheduled in the city, the culmination of an incredibly busy six days and fifteen subjects. I was so tired when that final day came that I tried to cancel, but Jessie seemed so excited about the shoot that I managed to find a way to muster a little bit more energy just for him. And it was totally worth it, he’s such a highlight of Elska San Francisco, which is one of the most diverse and beautiful Elskas yet.

Funnily enough, I number all the guys who’ve been in Elska, and Jessie is no. 669. Quite a good number, especially for him, I think!

Nikolas L and Pieterjan V (from Brussels, Belgium)

Two shirtless men in bed

Although I’ve come to embrace the naughty side of things, that wasn’t always the case. For the first few years of Elska, I was much more shy and also worried about giving people the wrong idea. I was so afraid of people confusing my work for p*rn that even though I vowed to shoot each subject as a documentary if things ever got naturally sexual, I would interrupt the moment or not use those photos. I credit Nikolas and Pieterjan, from Elska Brussels, which was the twelfth issue, for forcing me to finally loosen up.

At first, these Belgian boys were really sweet and a bit coy, but there was a certain glimmer especially in Pierterjan’s eyes (the guy on the left) that steered the shoot deeper and deeper into intimacy. Eventually, they ended up both naked in bed, and I started to get nervous. As they got more involved with each other, I interrupted repeatedly to ask if they were still OK with me being there, or if I should stop shooting… They kept reassuring me to carry on, to capture this beautiful moment of love, but eventually, my own nerves got the better of me and I ended up sneaking away and leaving their apartment. I regretted that moment so much, I felt so ridiculous for being so timid… but the good part is that it made me vow to be braver from then on, as brave as all these men have been with me.

Issues of Elska Magazine

Issues of Elska Magazine are available, both in a limited edition print version and in an e-version. Signed art prints, annual subscriptions, and a behind-the-scenes bonus zine called Elska Ekstra are also available.

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