Elska Tbilisi

PHOTOS: Meet the men of Tbilisi, the most beautiful city of the former Soviet Union

I man sits in front of his bathroom door next to potted monstera plants.

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 Tbilisi, Georgia for the latest issue…

Omo T

A shirtless man in black underwear stands by an open window.

Although I’m sure many people would find the choice of Tbilisi as a feature city for a gay magazine to be an odd one, I’ve long wanted to use my Elska project as an excuse to visit this place. Tbilisi is one of my top five favourite cities in the world, and it’s a place I’ve been to several times before.

My first day back in Tbilisi a decade later started with Omo. We met in the Saburtalo district, a stone’s throw from where I used to have my daily Georgian lessons. The memories came flooding back as we walked past my tutor’s old office, then past the café where I often did my homework, and then past the little bookshop where I used to buy Georgian language children’s books to help advance my reading skills – a forty-page Tom and Jerry book matched the peak of my skills.

We started our shoot though outside a ‘tone’, a word that means ‘kiln’ but refers to the kind of bread bakery that is ubiquitous in the country. Inside is a partially underground oven that only makes one type of bread, a soft flat-ish loaf called ‘shotis puri’ that is a part of every Georgian meal. Seeing the ‘tone’ and how typically Georgian it was as a setting, I joked that we should shoot inside it. But Omo didn’t get that I was being facetious, and before I could stop him he’d walked inside and asked the baker if I could take some pictures there. The owner barked in a level of Georgian that I could just about understand that he would allow it, but it was “very hot” and so I had to be “very quick”. So I did as instructed, but I was too bashful to bring Omo in on the scene.

Demetre J

A man smiles in a blue winter coat standing crossed armed on the street.

I suppose I’m an easy enough guy to get on with, but more so there’s just a certain intimacy and trust that happens in a photoshoot that makes the experience always special. Yet although 99% of the shoots go well, it’s rare that I actually make friends with someone I photograph. Demetre was one of those few. 

Something about us just clicked. I think it was our nerdiness, and also the slight awkwardness that we share that somehow cancels out when we’re together. Anyway, a couple of days after we shot I was messaging Demetre about the story one of the other guys submitted for the issue, which was about the burgeoning gay scene in the city, centered on Vashlovani Street. Here Demetre admitted that he’d never once been to a gay bar in his country, he’d only frequented queer spaces when abroad. So I decided we’d break his Georgian gay bar virginity and go. 

Standing on Vashlovani Street however our awkwardness returned in force. We walked up and down the street three or four times, too indecisive to enter any of the bars. It reminded me of being a teenager back home in London and rushing around aimlessly in Soho, unsure who would be inside each of the bars or who might spot me ambling around outside. Finally, we looked at each other, laughed, and plucked up the courage to go into one randomly, which was a place called Mozaika. It turned out to be a fine choice. Still, we only stayed for one drink and then went home to hang out with a cup of tea. Neither of us are really bar people or big drinkers. But it was great to try the experience together.

Andrey K + Gera K

Two men in pajamas cuddle on the couch.

This shoot came from one of those magical moments of sheer spontaneity. I had just arrived for the indoor part of my photoshoot with Denis P, one of the other Elska Tbilisi participants, and he sat me in his living room to wait while he had to make a call for work. There in the living room was his flatmate, a guy called Gera who spoke no English. We made a bit of small talk using my rusty Russian, and it seemed like he was talking about doing a photoshoot with him. I was totally confused as I’d never talked to this guy before, let alone proposed shooting him. 

Then his boyfriend Andrey entered the apartment, and with his perfect English, he was able to explain everything. Andrey merely had been saying that he wished he could do a photoshoot if I had time. My schedule was tight though, so I suggested shooting straight away after finishing with Denis, and so we did. It was totally unplanned and totally glorious how much the natural love shone between Andrey and Gera. This made this shoot such a highlight of the issue.

Interestingly a few days ago I received a three-minute voice message from Andrey on Telegram. At first, I was dreading listening to it (most long messages tend to be negative, I find), I just had this odd sensation that they weren’t happy with the photos after the issue was published. But I was totally wrong. They wanted to tell me that they were going to be getting married next May in Copenhagen, and they’d love it if I could come. And maybe take some more photos at their wedding! Hmm, who knows? Maybe we could shoot the first Danish issue and add a little wedding-themed side chapter for these guys.

Dmitrii G

A shirtless tattooed man stands by a window wearing black underwear and pearl necklace.

After Russia launched its war against Ukraine, and particularly after Putin changed the laws regarding conscription, raising the maximum age to be drafted to thirty, around a million men fled Russia. Georgia was one of the main recipients, due to its proximity and its lax laws on immigration, leading to around a hundred thousand Russians now living in Tbilisi, making up 10% of its entire population. One of these new migrants was Dmitrii.

It’s a difficult situation for anyone to flee their home, to leave their entire life behind, but entering Georgia has been particularly tough for Russians because of the turbulent history between these nations. Russia last went to war with Georgia in 2008, and it currently occupies 20% of its land. But somehow ordinary Russians seem unaware of this, they seem to think of Georgia as some beautiful playground with fantastic cuisine, amazing wine, and a low cost of living. How shocking it must be to see “Fuck Russia,” “Russians Go Home” and other such graffiti on multiple buildings on every single street here!

It seems that most of these escapees from Putin’s war decided to just get used to these sentiments. And also to deal with the resentment from locals who now suffer rising rents, more crowded streets, and hearing the sound of their ‘enemy’s language’ all the time! But with this animosity seems to come something positive, a realisation that people are people, that it’s worth putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Many of these new Russian guests are trying hard to make a positive contribution to Georgia, to be clear of their opposition to the war, and to show their gratitude for having safe haven. To those Georgians gracious enough to find a place for empathy, old wounds can start to heal.

When I met and photographed Dmitrii, he was only a few months into his new life in Georgia, and things were not going well. He was depressed, he was confused, and he was angry as well. The images we shot show his sadness especially, and the story he wrote for the issue shows his anger. We’ve spoken since publication though, several months after the shoot took place, and I can say that things have gotten better, calmer, and happier for him. But of course, nothing will truly be okay until the war is over, until Dmitrii feels safe to return home… if he wants to.

Lucas A

A man sits by a windowsill wearing northing but boxer briefs and rainbow socks.

I’ll never forget the moment I met Lucas. I was waiting on a quiet street in the Vera district of Tbilisi looking around for a guy with dark curly hair and then I saw one, but it couldn’t be Lucas… he was together with some ruffian, someone who looked like a gangster, and I was genuinely frightened. My first thought was that maybe this was Lucas, but the whole thing had been a trap and these two thugs had come to gay-bash me.

Sadly, this wasn’t such an outrageous thought. Homophobia remains rampant in Georgia, and hate crimes do occur too frequently. Still strong in my mind was something that happened during my last trip to Tbilisi, when a foreign tourist was murdered in his hotel room by someone he met on Grindr, the victim of a “gay hunter”.

As it turned out, this curly-haired man was Lucas, and his brutish companion was a bodyguard, brought on because Lucas had been fearful of being attacked himself during our shoot. (Lucas is well-known on social media in Georgia for provocative LGBTQ rights activities.) Indeed only a couple weeks before we met he was beaten up on a bus for just holding a rainbow flag. As we conducted our outdoor shoot we frequently looked over our shoulders and relied on the bodyguard to guide us swiftly from scene to scene, and to choose which streets to go down and which to avoid.

Things got much calmer when we started the indoor portion of our shoot, and here they got more interesting as well. As soon as we got inside the bodyguard removed a black cap that unleashed a cascade of long, brown hair, and then a proper introduction was made. This bodyguard was Katerina, a trans woman who was one of Lucas’s best friends. She’d gone into masculine drag, hiding her hair and putting on the most intimidating big leather jacket all to help her friend. What started as a quite scary moment turned into something so lovely.

Miko S

A man wearing a blue fedora hat, pale green trench coat and tartan scarf.

It seems inevitable that in every single photoshoot trip I take for Elska, I end up developing a crush on one of the guys in that city. This time Miko was the recipient of that crush.

It started with discovering some things in common. Firstly I saw our mutual love of animals. I met his dog and his cat at his place, and during our outdoor shoot I ended up photographing him with a cute stray dog and some stray cats as well, it was like he just attracted animals. Then I found out that he teaches Georgian to foreigners part-time, and as a former student of Georgian, I had a fun time bending his ear on conjugations and what-not. This then led to the discovery of his wicked and naughty sense of humour when he decided to correct my pronunciation of a particularly difficult letter for non-Georgians to pronounce. (This letter – ყ – sounds something like a “K” but from the back of your throat.) As I struggled to utter it he called out, “ყ, ყ, ყ… it’s like choking on a really big cock!” I blushed like a pomegranate!

Then came the real crush clincher… After he made that rude little remark I instinctually gave him an affectionate tap on the shoulder, and then he took my hand in his hand. I remembered the trouble Lucas got into for public expressions of gayness, and for a moment I thought of pulling away, but I didn’t. We walked on, hand in hand, for what felt like a minute, though it was probably just a few seconds. I can kind of still feel the warm rush as I think back to that.

The front and back covers of Elska Tbilisi.

The new Georgian-dedicated issue, ‘Elska Tbilisi’ is available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra Tbilisi‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes, two more Tbilisi men and their stories, and a behind-the-scenes diary from the photoshoot trip behind this series.

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