I caught up with Liam Campbell — the man behind the stunning photographs of Elska Magazine — to talk photography.
What was your inspiration for the concept of Elska Magazine?
There were a few inspirations that combined to lead to Elska. Probably foremost was the desire to create a classic art book — along the lines of Bruno Gmünder Publishing — particularly books by photographers like Barry Marré. He broke the rules — by using only natural light, being unafraid to print partially out-of-focus images, or having atypical composition. I’m not really into ‘perfect’ images any more than I’m into ‘perfect’ models, and people like Barry Marré made me believe that this was okay.
Initially, I wanted to make a full book — which would be of one country — but later I decided that I’d rather do a smaller book-azine concept focusing on one city, so that I’d be able to publish more often and for a lower price.
Why print a magazine — why not just publish everything online?
We do offer a download version for those who prefer that, but for me, I enjoy reading a print product so much more. The other senses that are involved — like touch or even smell — allow you to get more absorbed into the reading experience. Plus, I like the idea of displaying them on a shelf, on a coffee table, or toting them around with you. There is extra cost to making a print product, but it’s worth it. It just makes it so much more special.
Which was the first city that you focused on?
The first city was Lviv, Ukraine. The choice to go there was partly personal — I have ancestry from that region and I wanted an excuse to visit — and it was partly practical. The flight out there was cheap, and the cost of accommodation and other expenses was crazy-cheap — if the concept didn’t work, I wouldn’t be losing that much money.
I like the idea of shining a light on less obvious places, from time to time. Later we did do Berlin and Reykjavík — hardly unknown cities — but we’ve also done Yokohama, Cardiff, and Haifa.
What was the response that you got to that first edition?
The response was quite good which, in retrospect, kind of surprises me. That first issue was admittedly pretty rough, both in terms of design — I knew nothing about graphic design at the time — and in concept. Only four of the guys wrote stories, which has been essential for every guy in every issue since. I suppose people really liked the idea though, and put faith in the project, motivating me to keep going and improving for future issues.
How many cities have you now shot in for Elska?
Seventeen issues in seventeen cities have been published, and we’ve just finished shooting the eighteenth, which will be released in July. That’s going to be a big one — Elska Los Angeles.
What’s involved in planning a shoot?
In the early days, there actually was more planning — such as choosing specific locations, themes, and looks — but, over time, the emphasis has been more on spontaneity. The goal has become more like making a documentary, and avoiding anything contrived. That means that we ask the guys where they want to shoot — which is often in their own residential neighbourhood — rather than making a list of interesting or touristy settings and assigning them to them. We also tell the guys to wear their own style, or to be naked if that’s what they want. In that way, you’re seeing the a truer representation of a city and its people.
As for how we find the guys, more and more they come to us. Every day we get several messages from people asking to take part if we ever come to their city, and then we keep a list of them. For the most shoot — Los Angeles — the majority of the guys shot came from that list. Then, to fill in the gaps, we make announcements on our social media and ask people to spread the word. If there’s still gaps left, we’ll hop on Instagram or some gay apps and randomly send out some DMs.
Which city have you enjoyed shooting in the most?
Enjoy isn’t exactly the right word, but what springs to mind is Mumbai, India. It was just such an unforgettable place. It was the most exhausting shoot week ever — the heat, the traffic, the distances, the annoying and interfering cops — but all the while it was made so enjoyable by the incredibly warm and welcoming people. I’d also put Bogotá, Colombia pretty high up on the list, for similar reasons, though you can replace the heat with rain.
Which city has been the most challenging to shoot in?
Yokohama, Japan was the most difficult issue to make. The language barrier made it especially tough to connect with local guys, and when we did, they were absolutely the shyest and most conservative of anyone encountered in any city yet.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Yokohama has a large resident population of non-ethnic Japanese, then probably the issue would have completely failed. It was only through finding immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, China, and the USA, that we managed to fill enough pages. For a country that people seem to imagine as so modern and forward-thinking, that doesn’t extend to gay life. For the most part, the men we talked to there were simply terrified to take part in a public project associated in any way with homosexuality.
What has photographing guys around the world shown you about gay men?
In one way, it reveals that we’re all the same. That’s both because gay culture tends to be a rather Western-originating culture which has spread everywhere, and it’s also because queer people generally share some of the same struggles — like feeling alienated and seeking a way to belong and to be authentic. But, while we’re all on similar journeys, it’s the little differences between us that makes meeting each other so compelling.
Which city are you heading to next?
The next shoots will happen in London, with publishing of that issue due for September. As London is my hometown, it’s been a long time coming and promises to be a very special edition.
What other cities are high on your wish-list?
Generally the goal with our six issues per year is to have a mix of representation from different continents, and we’ve been doing that. But there are some cities that are just too dangerous to do — dangerous for the men involved due to rampant homophobia. Places that spring to mind are Teheran, Dakar, or any city in Russia. They’d make for fascinating Elskas, but they’re just not practical at this time.
Is there an end point to this project, or do you just keep photographing naked guys until you run out of cities?
There are a lot of cities and countries in the world, and to end with so many still not included in the project would seem unfair. How could we end now and have never been to Brazil or France or Korea or Ireland or Mexico or Italy or Thailand or Spain? Or to great queer cities like New York or San Francisco or Amsterdam? Unless people just stop buying our issues, the end is not in sight.
We don’t only photograph naked guys. Some guys simply don’t want to be shot nude, and we respect that. We don’t want to exclude anyone from the project based on how they look or how much they want to show. Some issues have a lot of nudity — like Bogotá or Cardiff — while others don’t — like Reykavík or Helsinki — that in itself reveals a lot about the conservatism of the culture.