Elska Magazine is a project dedicated to sharing the bodies and voices of a diverse cross-section of men from LGBTQ communities around the world, presented through honest photography and personal storytelling. Each issue is made in a different city where readers get to know to several local gay guys through honest photography and personal storytelling.
Liam Campbell started out in London, where he studied photography at Central Saint Martins but gave it up to get a ‘real job’, leading to a string of different careers – coffee boy, office lackey, secondary school French teacher, PhD student, and finally cabin crew, before rediscovering photography in 2014 during a layover in Korea. The fire was reignited and soon Liam spent all of his spare time with the camera, leading to some work in fashion, weddings, portfolio shoots, corporate, assisting, whatever!
Then in 2015 he launched his own project, an indie print publication called Elska Magazine, where each issue is made in a different world city and features honest and intimate photographs of a cross section of local LGBTQ men. Most of his photography work now centres around Elska, though he occasionally finds time to work on other projects.
Liam lives with his husband and their cat in Queens, New York. YASS met Liam and here is the result of a nice conversation.
What is Elska Magazine?
Elska is a print publication where for each issue we travel to a different city, meet a dozen or so local guys, and let readers get to know them through a combination of intimate photography and personal stories.
How did Elska start and what does Elska mean?
This could be a long story, but I’ll do my best to not go on too long… I did photography at college, but I never used it much until I ended up taking a job a decade later as cabin crew. Every time we had a layover, I’d get my camera out and do some street photography, and I also got into the habit of going on the apps wherever I was and messaging local guys to do a photoshoot. I got so into it that I then started doing part-time freelance work in photography, be it fashion, architectural, weddings, whatever. But in time I realised that there was something interesting about the shots I was doing in random parts of the world with random guys. So I decided to book a long weekend in Lviv,Ukraine, shoot some guys there, and publish the pics along with some stories into a little zine. That zine concept grew into what became Elska Magazine.
As for the meaning of ‘elska’, it’s the Icelandic word for ‘love’. I chose it because I wanted to convey how attraction can come from an emotional connection, how that emotional spark can lead to a physical spark. I felt that by presenting people in a very honest and loving way, it would allow viewers to see beyond the basic first impression and discover a beauty that they otherwise may have overlooked. The men you tend to see in a magazine are ‘perfect’ whereas the people you love tend to be ‘imperfect’, yet in these real life cases their flaws don’t prevent you from finding them beautiful. If I could present these men in a way that feels real, you could fall in love with them and see how their diverse bodies and ages and colours and whatever belong.
Who are the people behind Elska?
At the core there is me, Liam Campbell, who started it and who does all the travelling and photography. And there is also Marc Yates who helps with the editing, tightening things up and making sure the texts are in good shape. We’ve also had a series of photographic assistants over the years helping us out.
How did you decide to make your own magazine and what is the message you wanted to spread?
I remember once when I was doing an assistant job for a fashion shoot in London how every time the models would be out of the room the client would bitch about how these completely gorgeous women were somehow too fat, had tits that were too big, had legs that weren’t smooth enough, whatever. While I knew that the fashion industry was meant to be brutal, it just made me so uncomfortable. I still wanted to photograph people in a way that was akin to editorial fashion but without the need to belittle or humiliate anyone. So I decided to do my own project; even if it didn’t sell well, I would at least get some time to breathe, away from the toxicity of fashion. When I started I didn’t really have a message, I just was experimenting, but once I started to hear from readers how much my work meant to them, I developed a message out of a commitment to them. For example, when someone tells me that seeing a body like theirs presented in a beautiful way makes them feel more positive and confident, it makes me want to be sure that I continue to find space for different types of bodies and make sure I always present them beautifully and with an equality of attention.
How does the male body inspire you and what is the beauty of the male body?
I think it’s unavoidable that being a gay man affects my feelings about the male body, in that there is some connection to desire, and maybe even a smidge of egotism. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I’d have said that I had a type, but at the same time, the men I dated or hooked up often didn’t meet the criteria of that ‘type’, yet I fancied them all anyway because I liked them, because of chemistry. These experiences over time eroded the notion of ‘type’ that I had. Now when I shoot a guy I try to get to know him a bit and that enables me to see a beauty that otherwise I may have overlooked. When I like someone, I stop thinking in terms of someone being ‘too old’, ‘too young’, ‘too hairy’, ‘too smooth’, ‘too skinny’, ‘too chubby’, whatever. And this inspires me because it’s so not the norm – society tells us what beauty is and it’s exciting to declare the norm as wrong.
As for the egotism part, I have had some low self-esteem issues, still do really, but in those instances where I photograph a guy who resembles me in some way, it gives me a shot of confidence. I hear the same sentiment from a lot of readers too.
You have travelled all around the world to capture men in different places. What have been the best moments of this process and what are the biggest challenges you have faced?
The biggest challenge for me is letting go, as I tend to be obsessed with organisation and schedules. When I shoot in a city like Dhaka (Bangladesh), it can be difficult to find guys willing to participate in my project because of the homophobia in society, and it really stresses me out. But a city like London can be challenging too, because there are loads of guys up for taking part but also a sort of flakiness where people cancel left and right and make me scramble to find replacements. I wish I could let go of this stress, because some of the best moments in my work come from spontaneity, when I meet someone and shoot straightaway. It’s quite magical, and I keep telling myself that one day I’ll try to shoot in a city without any planning and see how it goes. But it’s also so scary to invest the money in a flight and hotel and not be sure that I’ll be able to get enough material to make an issue.
How do men differ from one place to another?
With risk of getting too academic here, I might mention that I was in academia before my flight attendant and photography work, and I take a lot of inspiration from anthropology in what I do. This makes me approach everywhere I go with openness, to be unbiased and just get to know the men I meet by just listening and observing. I think we all find difference interesting, almost to the point of being obsessed with ‘othering’ as a way to define our own identities, but my general feeling is that we’re actually not that different. Everyone wants to love, to be free, to love themselves; the difference is in where the focus lies. In more homophobic societies, people tend to me more concerned with how they simply exist, while in more queer-friendly societies, I tend to see a greater concern with how one can find self-love. I’m perhaps over-generalising, but in ‘unfree’ places yearn for gay culture because they think it will make them feel free, while in ‘free’ places people chastise gay culture for its toxicity. As an illustration, in one type of location, men may be reluctant to take part in Elska out of fear of being outed, while in another type of location, men may decline getting involved out of fear of being belittled as ‘not worthy’ or attractive enough to be in a magazine.
What has stricken you the most all these years working on this photography project?
The biggest impact is how many people actually share my values. I sense that most people still look at my work and think it’s pointless and that the men in it are ‘nothing special’, but every day I hear from those who do get it, and this fuels me to carry on.
How has this pandemic affected your work?
It’s been difficult for sure. Certainly, it’s been hard in terms of sales since most of the shops that Elska is sold in have been closed, and some have permanently been shuttered. But it’s also hard since we’re so tied to travel. I’ve had to grab whatever opportunities I could find, like shooting in my own country, the UK, during a lull in the pandemic last summer, and then shooting next door in the Republic of Ireland. I now live in the USA and will be shooting an issue here next month, but I’m desperate to get to other parts of the world, like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. I have flights booked to all of these places for later this year, but who knows they’ll be able to actually happen? On the plus side, I just got my vaccination, so that gives me some hope.
How do you help to bring out the beauty and confidence in everyone?
I am quite easy-going, softly spoken, and not at all gregarious; I think this puts people at ease when with me. Also, I tend to shoot in a casual way. I don’t overly plan a session, we more or less just explore a neighbourhood and shoot as we walk and talk; then when doing a home shoot, we basically just have a cup of tea and carry on the conversation while I happen to have a camera with me. It’s really not a scary experience at all.
Do people usually feel shy when in front of a camera? How do you help someone get out of their clothes?
Shyness is almost always there at the beginning of a photoshoot, and the truth is that the first scene is usually rubbish because of the apparent nervousness, but as we carry on the mood gets more relaxed and the photos get better. You slowly forget that the camera is there, and you also gradually forget that you’re naked. Occasionally if it is too scary for someone, we just stop and talk about it, maybe discover why those nerves are in the way. I don’t claim to have the answers, it’s more that the act of talking itself can solve the problem. I’ve only had to give up on a shoot two or three times, but even then I was rather polite and tried to not let them feel bad. It is after all quite a brave thing to do such a shoot, to be so open.
How can someone be a part of Elska?
Anyone can take part, it’s just a case of whether we come to your city for a future issue. I’d recommend anyone to fill in their details at bit.ly/elskans and we’ll let them know if we visit their location. The more people that sign up for a city, the more likely we are to go.
How do you celebrate diversity?
It’s important to me to be sincere, never tokenistic about diversity. For example, when I shot our Elska Reykjavík issue, I don’t think I came across a single black man even just walking around the city, so it would have been hollow to try to find one somewhere else and wedge him into the issue. Diversity is a wonderful and important thing though, especially in the gay community and in this era, so I aim to bring diversity by our choice of locations. For example, if we make an issue in a rather white European city, the next city might be made in a more black US city, and then the next in an Asian city, in Latin America, etc. So while each issue might not tick every ‘box’, the Elska project as a whole is diverse.
What are your future plans?
In April we’re releasing a Dublin issue, and later that month we’ll be shooting a future issue in Atlanta, USA. We also have trips to two different African cities booked in the summer, and I’m hoping that the pandemic eases in time so the trips can go ahead. But whatever happens, we’ll figure something out, we always do!
*all images are courtesy of Elska Magazine