This month photographer Liam Campbell celebrates five years of traveling the world, meeting a diverse range of local men, and showcasing them in the magazine Elska. While the Coronavirus pandemic, when travel is limited, he reflects on travels past and fantasizing about travels to come.
Here Liam shares exclusively with GayCities some of the most sexy and interesting men and moments from the past five years.
Juan C (Bogotá, Colombia)
When coming up with this list of ten unforgettable men and moments from a project where I’ve so far photographed nearly five hundred guys, the first person to come to mind was Juan. Not only is he one of the best friends I’ve made during my Elska travels, but our shoot was also one of the most insane. We started at his place, shooting some nude photos in his at-home recording studio (Juan is part of the group Los Rombos) and then took a walk around his Bogotá neighborhood for outdoor shots. Around halfway through our session, cops decided to come over and ask what we were doing. We were in a public place, with no permission or permit required whatsoever, but they decided to use the opportunity to intimidate us for their amusement. This included them taking the camera and looking through the photos, including Juan’s nude images, and then laughing amongst each other and taunting us with comments that I did not have the Spanish language skills to understand. It was incredibly frustrating but it did not have the intended effect to humiliate us whatsoever. We left with our heads held high, and perhaps this was what created a bond of friendship that continues to this day.
Anzie V (Mumbai, India)
Mumbai is one my favorite cities, but it’s also incredibly chaotic, crowded, and absolutely massive. Anzie worked in the city not far from Colaba where I was staying (definitely one of my favorite neighborhoods in Mumbai), but he lived a fair distance and commute away. So he asked if it might be okay to stay the night with me so that we could shoot in the evening and then he could go straight to work the next morning. Trying to be kind, especially in a culture where I’d come to discover how hospitable the locals are, I agreed. However, as much as I try to keep a professional mindset, sharing a bed with this insanely hot guy was a bit of a challenge. I barely got an hour’s sleep all night with all the nerves over whether I might “bump” into him in the night, or embarrass myself some other way. Everything turned out fine though, and the next morning we took a few sunrise shots in the area, followed by coffee, and then another brief interrogation by a local cop. This time, however, I didn’t have any of the indoor pics still on the camera, so there was no teasing to endure.
Ky S (Yokohama, Japan)
When I started Elska I just wanted a way to combine my love of photography, men, and travel, but over time my work started to have a broader meaning, such as increasing visibility, promoting diversity, and breaking stereotypes. One of the things I noticed early on was that much of LGBTQ media tends to lack diversity, and where it exists, it can be laden with misconceptions. Ky here definitely was one to break stereotypes about Asian men.
Taras D (Lviv, Ukraine)
The first Elska issue I ever created was in Lviv, Ukraine. It was a city I chose mainly because I personally was interested in visiting it (I gave a lot of focus to Ukraine in my master’s degree), and also because it’s a really cheap country to travel in. Certainly, it wasn’t the sort of city you’d probably select as the first destination of a gay magazine, but it’s a place I fell in love with, mainly for the beautiful people and the proliferation of brutalist ugly-pretty buildings, which I adore. In particular, there are many abandoned buildings and ruin sites throughout the country. For our shoot, Taras took me to a former Soviet army mess hall, hidden on a hill within a small urban forest. In much of the world, such places are fenced off for concerns of health and safety, but in much of post-communist Europe, you can still sneak inside and nobody cares. It was one of my favorite shoot settings ever. I’m quite tempted to return to Ukraine one day for more of the same, perhaps to the capital Kyiv next time.
Raj B (Dhaka, Bangladesh)
Another one of my favorite ever shoots was with Raj. As a Hindu living in a majority Muslim country, he suggested we meet in Tanti Bazaar, a mainly Hindu part of Old Dhaka. To say the area was busy would be a major understatement, and it was a huge challenge to photograph Raj amongst the hustle and danger of oncoming people and rickshaws. But it was also one of the most unforgettable afternoons of my life. I followed him around as he took me through various narrow alleyways, paused at street stalls for snacks I’d never tried before, guided me onto various rickety boats for short rides along the river, and even tried to give me a tour of a big pink palace (unfortunately they wanted an exorbitant entry fee for me as a special ‘foreigner price’ that sent Raj into an bit of a mild rage – I appreciated his efforts though). If I ever find myself in Dhaka again, I want to return to that pink palace, but next time I’ll get the tickets and Raj won’t be able to get upset about it.
Will T Jr (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
It’s become a sort of tradition that in every city I visit I end up crushing on one of the people I meet. Nothing ever comes of it, I’m a happily married and boring gay man after all, but it usually causes me some nervousness and awkwardness. I’m not sure if Will noticed since he’d never met the ‘normal’ me, but the crush I had on him was so severe that I was a complete mess. I was so clumsy that I did one of the worst photography jobs ever (though fortunately, I took so many shots that there were still enough good ones to use) and I was so bumbling that I started telling ridiculous dad jokes even though that’s something I never do. I suppose that was my way of impressing him? Maybe it worked actually because at the end of the shoot he invited me out. Of course, I said “maybe” but I knew I wouldn’t ever turn it into a yes. As much as I liked Will, I would have just made a fool of myself.
Raph R (Manila, Philippines)
Another one of my crushes was on Raph in Manila, but in our case my awkwardness was tempered by the fact that we could not stop fighting with each other. As soon as we met, Raph pegged me as some kind of white colonizer who would look down on Filipinos as ‘exotic’ or ‘third world’. I suppose in reality he knew I was not like that, but he tested me by throwing all sorts of arguments my way, which due to my love for playing devil’s advocate, I ended up arguing right back in the ugly American role (is there a British version for this term?). I think this impassioned mood is what led to one of the most inspired shoots I’ve ever done. I shot him naked climbing over bags of coffee (his family runs a coffee roastery), doing acrobatics in front of his bathroom mirror, and playing with depth of field in his dark blue bedroom amongst these little smiley cut-outs he had hanging from the ceiling. Raph and I stayed in touch, and through that, I noticed that our previous fighting was just banter. Even so, if I ever meet him again, I look forward to arguing some more.
Nathan T (Perth, Australia)
One of my main values for Elska is that anyone who wants to take part is welcome and that there’s no casting procedure that prioritizes celebrities. However, celebrities are still people, and after all these years it’s natural that a few famous guys found their way into my work. Yet while Nathan here isn’t really a celebrity, for me he was the person who made me feel the most starstruck in my life. Nathan had appeared on a certain TV baking competition, and I was a big fan of him and the show. Because of this I ended up following him on Insta, and then to my shock, he followed me back. Then when I announced I was coming to shoot an issue in his native Perth, he was up for taking part. I was ecstatic, but also slightly concerned that he’d want to use the opportunity to promote his career, when really the goal is to showcase the ordinary side of each person. However, he was completely on the same page, and so the story he wrote gave no mention of his reality TV past. In fact, this may be the first time I’ve even mentioned him and his celebrity status.
Ashley S (Cape Town, South Africa)
One of the most interesting aspects of doing my work is discovering how different societies behave towards queerness. In lots of places, men often don’t want to do the indoor part of the photoshoot because their parents or flatmates don’t know they’re gay, or perhaps they just feel awkward having a stranger in their home. London and Seoul were some of the worst places in this regard. One of the best though, perhaps surprisingly, was Cape Town. I’ll never forget when I was shooting Ashley and his boyfriend in his bedroom that Ashley’s mum kept barging in to offer us coffee, biscuits, a sandwich, or just to ask a question. The same was true in Mumbai, where numerous times a mum or grandma would interrupt a photoshoot to bring tea. There was no shame, no embarrassment, just a really open household that I wish all queer people had the fortune to experience. And in this case, I was all the more glad because Ashley’s mum really made a mean cup of coffee.
Temelalj C (Taipei, Taiwan)
Every person who takes part has the option to shoot clothed, nude, or both. The first part is out in the city and the second at home, but occasionally I meet some rather brave and crazy men who fancy stripping off out in the open. Temelalj was one of them. We met at one the Taipei’s university campuses, and although it was a Sunday morning, it wasn’t completely devoid of people. Temelalj was determined though, perhaps he had a naked outdoors fantasy to live out, so he led me around to the back of one of the science labs, where he thought it would be quiet. There he did a quick look around and then stripped off to nothing. At first I tried to be quick, but soon we both sort of forgot about the nudity, that is until a family happened to walk by. They barely seemed to react though, but we made our escape at that moment anyway, just in case.
Liam Campbell is editor and photographer of the indie print mag, Elska. For this project, each issue is made in a different city and features a random selection of around a dozen ordinary local gay / queer men, each photographed in their city and at home, and each accompanied by a personal story. This month the project marks its fifth anniversary, so far comprising twenty-nine issues in twenty-nine cities and nearly five hundred photographic subjects.
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.