year in review

PHOTOS: Gorgeous guys around the globe show off their hometowns

Liam Campbell is the editor of indie print magazine, Elska, a project that involves traveling around the world, getting to know some regular local guys, and introducing them and their city through photography and personal stories.

Liam shares with GayCities a selection of photos with a bit of behind-the-scenes commentary about each bloke he came across during his travels this year.

Victor – London

Shirtless man stands in front of a red statue on a green lawn in London.

An absolute highlight of my trip to London was spending time with Victor in Queen Elizabeth Park, which is the site of the former London 2012 Olympic Park. If you were around in London during the Olympics, you would have seen the best of Britishness – people enjoying the outdoors, showing their curiosity and appetite for discovery, and maybe drinking a little too much! Somehow in this park that spirit remains. During our shoot we ran into families picnicking, couples cycling, and pubs full of people chatting and drinking Pimms in the sunshine. Victor also was such a lovely chap, really cheering me up and making me more homesick than I felt during my entire trip.

Even with all the tough times in Britain these days, my afternoon with Victor gave me some hope and showed me that the Britain I loved is still there somewhere, perhaps under a cloud, waiting for the sun.

Samgat A – Kazakhstan

A shirtless man in boxers stands in front of a spotlight holding his face.

Over the past nine years, I’ve published forty-two 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.

Boris L – Israel

A shirtless man holds his shirt above his head while standing on the side of the road.

To say that Israel is a complicated place is an understatement, but what I felt most strongly from my experience meeting twenty-two Haifa men was that they loved their city whilst acknowledging the downsides. Of all the men though, I think it was Boris who expressed the most joy about life in Haifa.

Originally from Ukraine, part of the city’s huge community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, making up 25% of the population, he knew what it was like to experience Haifa with fresh eyes. Boris acknowledged that it wasn’t an easy process to find a home here, which included extensive Hebrew language studies and other assimilation projects, but he found the support from the community and many new friends key to motivating him. With their help, he was able to construct a happy new chapter of his life. For our shoot, he chose to take me to the beach, which he says his is favourite thing about living in Haifa. That and the people of course, who he described as the happiest in Israel. All that sun and sea and sand can’t help but make people cheerful.

Dao Fah – Bangkok

A person with short drak brown hair wears a traditional red brocade thai dress.

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 and 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.

Serhii M (Сергій М) – Ukraine

A man sits on a blush colored chair wearing a gray shirt and white briefs.

Serhii was a more recent addition to the Ukraine issue. When we met, he told me about having come originally from Mariupol, one of the most brutally decimated cities in Putin’s war. He also told me about his coming out story, which happened in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, and how he worries for all his friends there. This is the theme of the story he wrote for the issue, which is published in Ukrainian and followed by an English translation.

One of the sweetest moments from our meeting came after we finished the photoshoot. As I was putting my camera away and Serhii was getting dressed he noticed that I had a small pin depicting a heart atop a Ukrainian flag. He asked if he could take a few more pics whilst holding it, so I got my camera back out and stood him by the light of the bedroom window. He instinctively pressed the heart against his chest and the resulting photograph came to become the cover for the issue.

Ekin K & Emrullah T – Istanbul

Two shirtless men embrace

A sign that Istanbul is 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.

Kramer E – San Francisco

A shirtless man sits in a bath tub in the woods.

There’s an old phrase referring to California as the “land of fruits and nuts”, meaning it’s full of gay people and crazy people. I imagined this phrase being attributed to Joan Rivers as uttered on some 80s late-night talk show, though apparently, this etymology goes way back when most of California was covered in orchards and farmland.

In any case, if I had any expectations of my trip to San Francisco, I would meet a lot of gay people and a lot of, shall we say, eccentric people, or hipsters perhaps. The closest I came to finding that ‘fruit-and-nut’ archetype was Kramer.

We met outside Rockridge BART station in Oakland, grabbed a coffee, and then he took me in his old jeep (which was so old it almost could have been around during the Summer of Love) and drove me to a forest. I didn’t know why we were going there, just something about there being really tall trees that I had to see.

When we arrived, he grabbed a massive case out of the back seat and lugged it into the forest. I had no idea what it was, but then after finding a quiet, secluded spot with some nice speckles of golden-hour light, he revealed it to be a harp. He started playing it, serenading the birds, the occasional dog-walker, and me.

Another magical, and utterly weird, photoshoot. Which then got nuttier, and fruitier, when he took me back in the car and to another wooded area, this one which inexplicably had an old bathtub in it. Naturally, he got naked and climbed inside.

Lucas – Tblisi

shirtless man sits with plants inside.

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.

Issues of ‘Elska Magazine’ are available in a limited edition print format as well as in an electronic version. A companion e-zine called ‘Elska Ekstra‘ is also available containing hundreds of pages of bonus outtakes and a behind-the-scenes diary from the photoshoots of each series.

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