We can’t wait until travel resumes. In the meantime, here’s a chance to travel virtually to Northern Ireland and get up close with some local Belfast men.
The photos for this article were all shot in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Elska Magazine editor and photographer Liam Campbell, who shares exclusively with GayCities these exclusive photos and a bit of behind the scenes commentary.
Probably Belfast’s most iconic sight, the local equivalent of an Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building, are the big yellow Harland and Wolff cranes that are seen throughout the city, especially in and around the Titanic Quarter (yes, this is where the Titanic was built). I’d actually only first heard about these after seeing Blu Hydrangea’s take on them on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, where the queen made a dress with crane-wings to encapsulate her city. These cranes can be spotted in the backgrounds of several of the images featured in the issue, but my favorite one is here. This drawing of the Harland & Wolff cranes was made by the model himself, Anthony Cooley. I asked if he sold any, but he’s moved on to writing children’s books of late. Hopefully, he’ll come back to it again someday, I’d love to own a copy for my wall.
When I started Elska five years ago, it was mainly about the pics. For my first ever issue, I asked each of the guys if they’d like to write a short story to print alongside their photos, and a few did but most chose not to bother. In time though I got to love the story idea more and more, especially how it lets you get to know a person and their culture more deeply, so I made the story part mandatory for every guy featured. I think that the Belfast issue is one of the strongest editions in terms of storytelling, and perhaps my favorite text in it is the one by Marcus H-N. He wrote about a house party he had back around The Troubles. As rioting took over the streets outside his home, and with the party out of reveling supplies, Marcus braved the outdoors to buy some drinks. But he didn’t just go out as his more ordinary self, he went out in full drag as Lady Portia Di’ Monte. I’m not sure if the rioters quite knew who they were looking at, but they fell in love and helped her on her mission. Perhaps one of the most uplifting stories ever written about an Ethno-nationalist conflict.
Before I came to Northern Ireland, sectarianism was pretty much the main stereotype I had in my head, but once I arrived I was reminded of another. As I was documenting my trip on social media, people were messaging me to say, “I hope the issue will be full of gingers!” It really annoyed me, both because the idea that the island of Ireland is all red-haired people is untrue, and also because I don’t want to be feeding any sort of fetish. However, when I met Matt, with his long mane of ginger waves, which he kept proudly filling my camera with, I started to feel emboldened. I remembered how at school the ginger kids were ruthlessly teased or bullied, and that any chance to celebrate hair should be taken. That’s why I chose to use a very hairy picture for the cover of the issue.
I suppose another stereotype I knew about Northern Ireland was their love of fish and chips, especially after watching the episode of Derry Girls where English cousin James declares that he finds it too greasy, much to the horror of the rest in the scene. That’s why, in addition to trying to snap pics of the Harland & Wolff cranes, I kept trying to take photos that included chip shops in the background. I did manage to capture a few, but with Jason, I did one better… I actually met him at a chippie. We were supposed to meet at the nearby Botanic rail station, but his boyfriend was hungry so we met at a place called The Chip Co instead. At the time I claimed I wasn’t hungry, too keen to get to work, but almost immediately after our photoshoot finished, I headed straight back there, despite the heavy rain. Gorgeous, it was, though I was disappointed that they were out of scampi. A problem with the freezer, they told me.
I should mention that the photos in this issue were taken last summer, during the year of COVID. Part of the reason why I chose to feature Northern Ireland was actually because the infection rates had been so low, so I felt safe to work there. Plus, even though I live in the USA now, as a citizen of the UK I would be allowed entry while other US travelers were not allowed in. I did however do a quarantine after arrival, making this in effect the longest shoot trip I ever took. Each day I went out once, for exercise and to visit the supermarket. Usually, the exercise part took the form of a bike ride, where I would explore some of the city’s famous (and infamous) murals, aka peace walls. Many of these are practically ancient, lingering signs of the Troubles that separated republican / Catholic / Irish from loyalist / Protestant / British. There are also many new murals though, like several Black Lives Matter walls, one of which I photographed as it was being painted, and signs like this which reflect the COVID era. Paris was only too happy to pose in front of this ode to National Health Service workers. He did wear a mask by the way, as did all of the subjects, removing them only before each photo was taken.
Up to this point, I’ve taken my Elska project to thirty-one different cities around the world, but Belfast was actually one of the most difficult places I’ve ever encountered. That’s because there’s a certain legacy of conservatism here, and a tendency for political groups to demonize LGBTQ people for their own populist benefit. That’s probably why Northern Ireland only got same-sex marriage rights several years after the rest of the UK or the Republic of Ireland. For me, this social climate meant that a lot of guys who originally seemed excited to take part in the project got cold feet and canceled, or even stood me up for our photoshoots. It was also very difficult to find replacements. But not everyone was afraid, and the men included in this issue are especially bold and deserving of applause. Robert was one of those guys that really impressed me both by how proud he was of his city and how much he wanted to show how it was changing into a thoroughly modern and queer-friendly place. The story he contributed for us is one of the issue’s most positive, a tale of a night out with drinks, dancing, drag queens, and bingo. I’d love it if this fun spirit started to replace some of the other stereotypes of this country.
Liam Campbell is editor and chief photographer of the indie print mag, Elska, a project that involves traveling around the world, getting to know some regular local guys, and introducing them and their city to the world through honest photography and personal stories.