Men’s magazine Elska is celebrating its fourth birthday in September.
”I like to think of Elska as some kind of sexy anthropology journal,” explained 33-year-old editor and photographer Liam Campbell in 2015 when he launched the publication. Since then, Liam has traveled to more than twenty countries, including Iceland, to capture ”the bodies and voices of gay communities all over the world” in all their diversity. Fresh off the plane from Manila, Liam tells us more about his four-years journey and learning experiences, the upcoming edition and his plans for the future of the magazine.
You launched Elska in September 2015. What does it feel like to be celebrating its fourth year?
“It certainly feels great but also really hard to believe. Originally there was a soft goal to get to twenty or twenty-five issues, but now that this milestone has passed, I don’t feel like stopping at all. Where do I push the milestone forward to though? Fifty sounds good, but judging by how fast time flew up to this point, Elska will reach fifty issues before I know it.”
Did you ever imagine that you would still be going strong four years later?
“In essence, no. I guess I imagined that I’d gain the sort of experience from Elska that would lead me into a career working in commercial photography or maybe for a mainstream magazine. Maybe I’d make ad hoc issues or something to scratch my creative itch, but I thought it would end after a couple of years. I knew that Elska would never make much money; however I learned to value other things more, like artistic freedom and the feedback I’ve had from readers who say how much Elska means to them. I feel I have a responsibility to them. I’ve also learned that I really don’t need or even want much money.”
How has Elska been received over the years?
“A lot of people just don’t understand what I do. They expect the people in Elska to be more famous, more fit, more young, and their stories to be more sensational or more salacious. They’re ready to judge everyone, put them into boxes, and rank them. ‘Who’s hot, and who’s not?’ This is absolutely not what I want to do or what I want to facilitate. It’s thankfully rare, but I occasionally get messages like, “Why would you put that guy on the cover of a magazine? Surely you could have found some-one better looking in that city.” I can’t fathom why someone would take the effort to write an email to express this sort of thing, but it makes me sad and cynical about humanity. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet learned how to shrug it off.”
What have you learned from your experiences?
“One of my biggest takeaways from my experience has been the power of visibility. When I originally conceived of Elska I thought of using models because it just seemed the natural thing to do, because prior to Elska I had been doing some work in the fashion industry. However, when I started ‘casting’ I just felt uncomfortable with selecting or rejecting people by their looks so I just decided to welcome everyone. As I expected, we get a higher amount of positive feedback for a nude spread of some ‘traditionally hot’ guy, and that’s OK. But it means more when someone writes in to say, “Seeing different types of bodies in your magazine has made me feel better and more confident about my body.” Some-times I wonder if therefore I should focus on purposefully photographing certain types of bodies, to give even more visibility, but I think this visibility has greater power when different bodies are all together, equalised and not fetishised.”
Can you share the most memorable story you’ve heard?
“I definitely have a few that stick out, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a story from Alejandro G in the Guadalajara issue. The story itself was nothing shocking, just another tale of a relationship turning into a long-distance one and trying to cope, but the way he told his story made me think a lot about myself. There was a line when he wrote, “I don’t want to wake up in the mornings anymore […] but I still do it”. I admire this level of honesty immensely. Most people would just say “I really miss him” or “I’m sad”, and although I respect people’s desire to be private, I’m a sucker for the dramatic. Then later he continues, “I take the pills that I have been taking for the last ten years to calm what the doctor calls depression and anxiety disorders, and I just call the consequences of living.” This really grabbed me, I understood so well, and it made me understand my own psychology better.
Ultimately what I really want for Elska is that people feel like they’ve travelled along with us to each city, met these guys in person, and got to know them. In some ways the intimacy and simplicity of the photography achieves that and sometimes it’s more the stories. Or hopefully it’s a combination of the two.”
You’ve been to 25 cities to date, in more than 20 countries: how do you pick them?
“There’s generally three factors to choosing a city. The main consideration is geographical diversity. For example, last year we did an issue in South America, followed by one in Africa, then Australia, then North America, then Europe. As for picking the specific cities, it’s often influenced by letters received from readers. For example, the Mumbai issue came about mainly because a bunch of people had written in asking us to go there, and eventually I decided to give in to their requests. Thirdly, cost is a factor. So if there’s a really cheap flight somewhere, or someone’s offering us a free place to stay, it can help swing a decision.”
The next edition, out on September 12, takes us to Manila. Can you give us a sneak peek?
“Manila was chosen largely due to reader requests. In fact, apart from NYC and San Francisco (neither of which we’ve featured yet), no other city had so many people write in asking us to visit. I never really thought much about the Philippines though, so I had no natural inclination to go there until enough people demanded it that I became curious. I suppose I imagined a highly Catholic conservative place, but the men I met there turned out to be super easy-going, really friendly, and also a bit overly modest and self-critical. If you get the issues, you’ll see a lot of cheeky smiles, quite a lot of nudity, and a fair amount of stories that will make you bang your head against the wall wondering how some people can be so down on themselves.”
Where can we find the print magazine in Iceland?
“I’m actually not sure of all the shops that sell Elska in Iceland, but I’ve heard reports of people finding them at various Penninn / Eymundsson bookshops across the country. Maybe at Keflavik airport, maybe in Akureyri, maybe at Kringlan and definitely at the Austurstræti locations.”
What’s next on your bucket list?
“When I was a flight attendant, before Elska, my favourite ever destination I visited was Buenos Aires, so that’s high on my list, though the flights tend to be very high in cost. I also adore Montréal, but since it’s only a five-hour drive from where I live currently, I keep it in my back pocket in case I ever get ill or something and can’t travel far. I’d also love to return to Ukraine (where we made our first issue) to feature a different Ukrainian city; and maybe also Iceland, but only if someone can guarantee being able to find a dozen willing participants up in Akureyri.”