PHOTOS: 6 ordinary guys from across the globe who celebrate gayness in difficult places

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This photographic subjects for this article were hand-picked by Liam Campbell from the first six years of the magazine project, Elska, to celebrate the magazine’s 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.

Year One: Sasha K from Lviv (Ukraine)

When I started my Elska Magazine project, it was just an experiment, so I chose for its first location a city that was simply one that I had a personal interest in. Some of my ancestors come from here, back when it was part of Poland and known as ‘Lwów’, so I was always curious to walk the streets that they once did. I also benefited from the fact that this is a very cheap place to travel in, which included me landing a fantastic apartment right opposite the Opera House for $20 a night. It turned out to be a gorgeous city, the sort of old European city that you dream of, one that still looks old and isn’t too spruced up or overrun with modern development and tourists. Like what Prague or Kraków were like before they were ‘discovered’. Known by some as the ‘soul of Ukraine‘, I definitely appreciated the cheekily anti-Russian sentiment I spotted around town, like this one that Sasha K (the third guy ever photographed for Elska) showed me. He thought it would be fun to take some shots next to this, where he gives a finger in support of a bit of scribble that translates roughly as “Putin f*ck off”. I ended up putting an image from this scene on the cover of the ‘Elska Lviv’ issue, and I remember being so tickled by the idea of someone who can read Cyrillic walking into a shop and seeing that message shouting out at them. If they bought the magazine, they’d find it had nothing to do with Russian politics, but that would be their problem, not mine. And hopefully they’d enjoy it anyway.

Year Two: Ryoji S from Yokohama (Japan)

As a longtime Japanophile and Chris Broad‘s number one fan (he’s on the top of my list of guys I’m allowed to cheat on with if he ever fell into my lap, or onsen tub), Japan was perhaps the place I was most excited to take Elska. The trip was also made special by the fact that I brought my husband along, and he even worked with me as an assistant, carrying bags, holding reflectors, or directing the lights. Finding participants was tough here though, in part due to a reserved society as well as a lack of people who spoke English enough to communicate with me. So I got my husband to help with scouting as well, and Ryoji was one of the guys that he found. It was such a fun shoot. In most cities I have visited, showing a little skin in public is no big deal, but Ryoji was terrified of being leered at. Still, he really wanted to live out a fantasy he had of doing shirtless modelling in public, so he suggested a ridiculously early time on a Sunday morning to shoot when no one should be around, and even then he was constantly looking over his shoulder to see that no one spotted him. I’m not sure what would have happened if he was seen, but it certainly was nerve-wracking for him, and hilarious for me. I feel like he did still have fun though, deep down at least.

Year Three: Ashley S & Ashwill S from Cape Town (South Africa)

My trip to Cape Town revealed a city that is leaps and bounds the gayest place in Africa. There I met not just South Africans but men from across Africa who’d moved here primarily so they could live their lives freely. Indeed South Africa remains the only country in Africa to have legalised same-sex marriage, making it a beacon of safety on a continent where homosexuality remains illegal in thirty-four of its countries. But the positive state of LGBTQ rights in the country isn’t limited to the legal sphere – society remains reassuringly open as well. I’ll never forget this scene, where I photographed Ashley and his partner Ashwill getting close in their bedroom. This was in a house that Ashley shared with his mother and sister, and it was ridiculous how many times his mum would pop into the room to interrupt the shoot. At first, I thought that maybe she was uncomfortable and wanted to sabotage us, but she was actually just really curious and friendly and wanted to make me feel welcome. But the constant offers of coffee, biscuits or just a bit of chit-chat were rather distracting. She did make an excellent coffee though.

Year Four: Myeongjin K & Y.E.S. from Seoul (Korea)

I’d always been a fan of Korea, from the cuisine (especially kalbi-jjim) to the music (my favourite K-pop artist of the moment is LOONA) to their cinema (it’s hard to pick a favourite film but you can’t go wrong with Train to Busan). So I was certainly excited to go to Seoul and make an issue of Elska. But what I didn’t expect of this seemingly ultra-modern country was a very conservative society. By this point, I’d shot Elska in twenty different cities and this was by far the most difficult place yet to find willing people to participate in my project. People were generally not fully out and were afraid of family or work repercussions for being discovered as homosexual, so even being seen in my little magazine felt too much of a risk for them. But then I stumbled upon an article that mentioned a local LGBTQ activist named Myeongjin (the guy pictured on the left) so I decided to look him up. He became my saviour there, someone who was more than willing to be seen, as was his boyfriend, who went by the initials Y.E.S. He then put me in touch with some other guys who he thought would be keen to participate, including a few local drag artists like Hurricane Kimchi, expats, and some guys who just didn’t get a f*ck!

Year Five: Gary P from Sydney (Australia)

People often tell me what a wonderful job I have being able to photograph men all over the world, including nude photography. And often I get asked whether it gets a little difficult to “control myself” during these photoshoots. I usually end up disappointing them with my answer though, which is simply that these shoots stay “boringly professional”, and furthermore that I’m usually too distracted by the scene, the light, and the camera to really notice however sexy the men in front of me are. Usually I only notice how gorgeous all of these guys are when I’m editing the images weeks or months later! But very occasionally one of my subjects makes me swoon so much that I can barely concentrate on the shoot. Gary was one of the best examples of that. I ended up taking loads and loads of genuinely awful pictures of him as we roamed around Sydney because I just couldn’t focus. I ended up having to prolong the shoot despite it being an extremely hot day until I’m sure he was sick to death of me and sick with sunstroke! At least he was polite about it and eventually I did get some great shots. I even chose one of them to put on the cover of the ‘Elska Sydney’ issue, though I’m still not 100% sure if I chose him for the cover because the photo was great or because I had a crush on him.

Year Six: Chris M from Belfast (Northern Ireland)

The sixth year of Elska started during the horrid COVID-19 era, making this project which is so connected to travel very tricky to make work. During the first summer of the pandemic I scrambled to figure out where I could go, and I decided that the only option was to go somewhere in my own country (the U.K.), and specifically to the region which had enjoyed the lowest infection rates, which was Northern Ireland. I flew out to the capital, Belfast, and then quarantined in my Airbnb for two weeks before I could start shooting. In this period I realised how lucky I was to have a husband and a cat back home to keep me company during lockdowns, because here I was all alone with nothing but a television to keep me company, and it was awful. What kept me sane was the process of finding my models, especially Chris. He kept me company on WhatsApp during the weeks, proposing good photoshoot locations, showing me pics of various outfits he thought of wearing at our shoot, or just chatting about his day to day life as a postman. When we finally met though he turned out to be rather shy, and the photoshoot was a little tricky… that is until he got naked. At that moment something clicked and he suddenly came alive and felt free. More free than he felt in a long time. I only wish that I’d suggested he bring his postman uniform with him. Those could have made for some epic pics!

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.