Elska, a magazine that focuses on the portraits and stories of gay men in cities across the globe, is celebrating its third year anniversary. Gayiceland caught up with the zine’s creator, Liam Campbell, to discuss Elska from its inception to now.
“The original concept was simple,” says Liam, when asked about how it all started. “To travel to a city, meet a pretty random selection of local guys, photograph them, and print stories written by them alongside the pictures. The only thing that’s changed is that we’ve been able to travel further than ever.”
According to Liam the bold idea behind the magazine’s creation has resonated deeply with its readership.
“We get letters from readers saying how much Elska means to them,” he says. “How good it makes them feel to see different types of men, not depicted as tokens or included just for the sake of some political message. Everyone is welcome in Elska.”
That is not to say, however, that the approach hasn’t challenged some people. “It’s taken some time, but even though our concept is very simple, it seems very hard to grasp for some who think they know what a gay magazine is supposed to be, and what sort of people are ‘allowed’ to be in it.”
But to those who criticize the choice of participants, Liam has his own opinions. “Nobody is ‘better looking’, just ‘different looking’. Yes, some people are unapologetically shallow, but I tend to believe that this is something that you actually should apologize for.”
He says that in approaching participants without bias, more touching and intimate stories are unveiled to the reader.
“There have been a lot of wonderful stories, it’s hard to pick just a few. The best moments come out of a real conversation between subject and photographer.
Professional models can be great at movement and providing different body positions, but most of the time it ends up looking contrived. If you’re selling fashion, that’s fine, but in Elska you’re supposed to connect with the person, not their clothes.”
Asked which stories have moved him the most, Liam says that a few stories have been particularly touching over the past three years, including one from Pierre B, in Brussels, who formatted his as a letter to his deceased father. Terrence D, meanwhile, used his platform in Elska Cape Town to speak candidly about an unwanted sexual experience he was persuaded into. He says that the diversity of the men’s stories, in part, comes from the diversity of cities visited.
“In Elska Los Angeles, people tended to pose a bit too much and write about becoming famous; in Elska London people were a bit more pouty and told serious stories; and in Elska Perth, people smiled a lot and wrote a lot about sex. Elska Reykjavík is one of the most demure issues, while Elska Bogotá has the most nudity of any issue. In some ways the stories show that we’re all basically the same, but they also show little cultural differences too.”
Of course, when travelling to places where ideals of masculinity remain entrenched Liam has met some challenges.
“A particularly difficult city we did was Lviv, Ukraine. After publication there was backlash even from some of the participants. One said he was angry to be included amongst men who were effeminate. And in Haifa, Israel, there was a guy who was upset that a picture showing his bum was included in his chapter because he thought it would suggest to readers that he was a bottom. Of course I can remember when bottom-shaming was common and when being flamboyant was a sort of embarrassment, but I don’t like to use the past to justify the present.”
Still, in many places without the progressive ideals that define cities such as Reykjavík and London, many men remain eager for Elska to come and show their stories.
“Elska Mumbai actually happened because of a few very enthusiastic men who wanted us to go there. During a time when ‘homosexual acts’ in India were still criminalized,” says Liam. “Diversity is key.”
With 19 cities featured from most continents, the scope of Elska’s influence is growing. As for its future, Liam says there will be some big changes in spring 2019. “The physical size of the magazine will increase greatly and we’ll be attempting to visit even less expected destinations than we do already. As for the next few months, you can look forward to an issue made in Lyon, France and then one made in Seoul, Korea.”