Browsing the modern gay magazines that line the shelves of most bookstores, there is a depressing trend that unites them all. Immaculate, preened faces stare from glossy covers like mannequins; their skin airbrushed and softened until it barely resembles skin at all. Beneath them are ripped, hairless bodies, the types of bodies that most of us can only ever dream of, entirely unrepresentative of the majority of guys. But this is what sells magazines, right?
Elska is a different type of magazine. Set in a different location with each new issue, the magazine aims to showcase real men from around the world, imperfections and all.
“The idea came over a period of about a year,” says Liam Campbell, the magazine’s creator. Having studied photography at college, Campbell says he never got to use his skills until he took a job as a flight attendant in 2014 (“mainly just so I could travel for free,” he admits), when he began to photograph local men. “On my layovers, I’d meet local guys, but rather than hook up with them, we’d hang out and I’d photograph them in their cities,” he explains. “I started to think about collecting these photos to form a book, and then that book became a periodical, something I could do every couple of months and keep my travel and photography passions as part of one single career.”
And then Elska was born. The title comes from the Icelandic word for ‘love’, a decision that came partly because Iceland was the first country Campbell ever travelled to alone. “Also, since I’m one of those types of people who thinks that beauty is on the inside, I thought that ‘love’ was a good title for a project about portraying non-models who some would consider not traditionally ‘magazine-beautiful’,” he adds. Iceland is also where the third issue of the magazine will be set, the first having been shot in Lviv, Ukraine, and the second in Berlin, Germany.
This is part of what makes Elska unique. Each issue is dedicated to the men of a certain city, but there is more to the magazine than just photos. Accompanying each model is a text, usually written by the model themselves, in which they relate a story from their lives or talk about their city. “I’m trying to treat these men as humans rather than objects, so I think that using their words is important,” says Campbell. “They’re not mannequins on which clothes are being sold; rather I’m selling the men themselves. As much as the pictures try to show who they are, the text adds more specificity, shows even more individuality.”
Individuality is key to Elska, and Campbell makes sure that the men he photographs maintain the elements that make them unique. He resists calling them models, and stresses that the men in the magazine are regular guys, the sort of men you’d see in the street or your local supermarket. Elska, he says, is a celebration of the ‘beauty of imperfection’.
“I’ll probably remove a spot, but scars stay visible, stray hairs are left, etc,” he says. “One critique I’d read about us recently that made me laugh was of how ‘disgusting’ it was that one of the models had some hairs on his shoulders. It’s something I could have easily removed in photo processing, but who am I to decide that this body hair is an ‘imperfection’? The natural attributes of a body are what make people unique, and that uniqueness, to me, is beautiful.”
While Campbell is keen to stress that the men he photographs are a world away from the airbrushed perfection seen in most gay magazines, it’s hard to deny that the men featured in Elska are hotter than the average guy. Toned or slim torsos dominate the pages and a mixture of boyish and ruggedly handsome faces are splashed over the magazine’s glossy paper.
“I do realise that ‘imperfect’ is a problematic word,” Campbell concedes. “People all have preferences and different conceptions of what ‘perfection’ is. All I can say is that I don’t have an editorial agenda when it comes to the men we photograph, but the fact is that, from my experience so far, the men who allow themselves to be photographed and published have a level of confidence that perhaps goes along with them being perceived as more ‘toned and attractive’. It can take a lot of effort from us to convince a slightly overweight guy that he is beautiful too, and I wish people loved themselves and their bodies more.”
Undoubtedly, the message of Elska is one of body-positivity. Regardless of your shape, size, colour or any other factor, Campbell wants you to know that you are beautiful. Diversity also plays an important role in the magazine’s ethos, and Campbell writes to a wide variety of guys to drum up interest. “Our first step is usually PlanetRomeo,” he says on how he finds the guys for his photographs. “What we end up with is a pretty diverse bunch of looks, ages, sizes, and races – but that diversity isn’t manipulated. For example, in Berlin we wrote to a lot of men from the Turkish community but unfortunately we didn’t get any positive responses. I wondered if we should have tried harder or even hired an ethnic-Turkish model, seeing as they are a big part of Berlin’s demography, but I didn’t want to force anything. I’d rather that each issue be organic even if it’s not statistically culturally accurate.”
Organic and honest, Elska is a refreshing change from the skin-deep beauty typically shown in gay magazines. Currently shooting in Iceland, Campbell has his eyes set further afield for the future, wanting to visit Australia, Tahiti and Argentina if he is able to raise the funds. But wherever he ends up, we can’t wait to see more from one of the most interesting and original magazines out there. We’re sure it’s going to be a fascinating journey.
Visit Elska’s website here.