Elska Istanbul

PHOTOS: Meet the men of Istanbul, the gayest city in the Muslim world

Picture from Elska Istanbul

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 Istanbul, Turkey for the latest issue…

Ibrahim T

Picture from Elska Istanbul

When I started Elska Magazine, one of the main goals was that a wide variety of geographies would be covered. I didn’t want this project centered on photos and stories of ordinary local men to only be from places like Berlin, San Francisco, or London. Istanbul is exactly the kind of city I hoped to feature, a place that many don’t expect to have a thriving and open LGBTQ scene. But it absolutely does, and many people have described it to me as the gayest city in the Muslim world.

Finding guys to take part in my project here was easy, and those who did shared stories that were open about their sexuality, and in their photos they all revealed their faces (and often much more). But one of the best examples of how open this city is came during my very first shoot here, which was with Ibrahim T. When I got to his house it was his mother who answered. At first, I was nervous, as if maybe I was supposed to pretend to be Ibrahim’s friend or something, but she knew exactly what we were doing. She made tea for me and her son, she cooked us lunch, and she told me to make sure her boy looked great in the photos! It was such a heartwarming moment, and one that only got sweeter when after the shoot she planted into my hands a box of homemade treats to take away with me.

Ekin K + Emrullah T

Picture from Elska Istanbul

Another sign of Istanbul as a great gay city, and proof that its LGBTQ+ community cares about furthering their visibility, came from this beautiful couple… Ekin K and Emrullah T, who I photographed in their home, were actually the first same-sex couple ever to marry in Turkey.

I spent a lovely afternoon with them, starting with coffee at Ekin’s favourite café in the bustling and up-and-coming Kadıköy district, located on the Asian side of Istanbul. Then we took a leisurely walk home to share fresh fruits and tea, and to capture some more intimate moments, like the shot shown here. And then we took a walk in a local park with their dog, and with some stray cats that seemed to be following us everywhere. It’s always so special to include a couple in Elska, but meeting a couple with such history and inspiration was a particular joy.

Furkan Y

Picture from Elska Istanbul

The only criteria that ever exists for someone to be included in an issue of Elska is that they live in the city being featured. We’ve had guys of all shapes, sizes, and colours, from ages 18 up to 75, and from all segments of the LGBTQ community (and a few allies as well). But even with such a broad set of guidelines, we’ve had a few people in Elska who broke the rules. One was Furkan Y.

I met him at the north end of the famous Galata Bridge, but before we could start the shoot he was begging for a coffee. Although I’m not one to ever begrudge a coffee or tea break, I usually try to do it at the end of a shoot, as a sort of celebratory job-done treat. But Furkan really needed it. I asked if he hadn’t slept well the night before; he shook his head and admitted that he’d spent the previous night on a bus from Ankara, hundreds of kilometers east of Istanbul. He never mentioned that he didn’t live in Istanbul, but now that we were face-to-face he couldn’t lie. He asked if it meant he wouldn’t be allowed to be in the issue anymore, but I couldn’t begrudge him this. To make such an effort to be in Elska can’t be punished!

Hakan T

Picture from Elska Istanbul

Istanbul was the first city I ever shot for Elska on my own, without a photographic assistant. However, around a month before the trip, there was a terrorist attack at Taksim Square, considered by many to be the heart of the city, and this scared off my usual assistant from coming. I decided to do it on my own, and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

At least 95% of the people I photograph for Elska never did any kind of photoshoot before, they’re not models (though Hakan T here definitely looks like he could be a model!) and they’re not celebrities either. This means guys can be pretty nervous, but in Istanbul, I found my subjects some of the most bold and up-for-it I’ve ever found. I figured this may be down to the more intimate and less intimidating nature of a one-on-one shoot. Or perhaps Turks are just very easy-going and unabashed sort of people!

Sasha B + Tema P

Picture from Elska Istanbul

I actually had the rare pleasure to shoot a second couple in Istanbul, Sasha and Tema (his name is pronounced like ‘tyoh-muh’). Interestingly, like Furkan Y, they also broke the rules to be in this issue of Elska. That’s because they didn’t live in the city either, nor even a long bus ride away in some other part of Turkey. Rather they were from Moscow.

Sasha and Tema both were completely head over heels for this city. In fact, Russians have long had a love affair with Turkey, but the LGBTQ community is especially fond of this town. They said how it was here that they felt most free, most relaxed, most joyful. Hearing that, how could I deny them a spot in this issue? Such a perspective on Turkey is a beautiful thing. It also furthers the idea of Istanbul as the gayest city in the Muslim world.

Cenk Y

Picture from Elska Istanbul

Cenk was one of the last men I met in Istanbul. We met in the posh Nişantaşı district of the city, and we had a truly unforgettable afternoon together. First of all, he was one of the most handsome lads I’d ever met, let alone had before my camera, but he also came along with another gorgeous friend who ended up being my assistant for an otherwise assistant-less issue. (I couldn’t convince him to do a shoot himself, he was very shy.)

I guess one of the best parts of my time with Cenk though was how much he demonstrated the Turkish adoration of cats. This is a city with literally hundreds of thousands of stray cats, yet each and every one is cared for. Everywhere you see dishes of water left out, piles of kibble, and locals taking a moment for a cuddle with a new feline friend. They’re absolutely everywhere (sometimes you struggle to find a seat at a café because there are cats sitting in the chairs!) and it’s probably my favourite thing about this city. Because of this love, I’ve actually included photos of fifteen cats on the pages of this issue – see if you can find them all!

Elska Istanbul' in a limited edition print format

The new Turkish-dedicated issue, ‘Elska Istanbul’ is available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra Istanbul‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, behind-the-scenes tales from the making of this series, two guest features form the artists Jonathan Lemieux (Montréal) and Luke Kurtis (New York), as well as eleven more Istanbullites their stories.

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