As we approach the end of another calendar year, it’s the perfect time to look back on what we’ve done, where we’ve been, and who we’ve met at Elska. When the year started I never imagined how insane 2020 would have turned out. Fortunately for us though, all but the sixth issue we released this year had their photos done before COVID-19 really hit. Warsaw and Amsterdam were both shot in the latter half of 2019, KL and Sydney were shot in January 2020, and then we did re-issue of Reykjavík series including some new content shot in November 2019 (featured in our special edition book called 'Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools'). The only issue shot during COVID was our Belfast series, made during a thankfully flat period of the pandemic . Anyway, let's reflect a little on a year that included spotlighting six cities and ninety-one elskans (aka 'elska boys'), and then let's give out a few cheeky awards.
Warsaw is the capital of a country that's frequently in the news for anti-gay movements and a nasty nationalist government that frequently uses the LGBTQ community as a demon for their supporters to rally against. This is a big part of why I wanted to come here, to show that a community still exists, and remains proud and defiant.
I also wanted to come because this city means a lot to me personally. I used to live here, and when I left in 2013 it certainly wasn't the homophobic landscape I keep reading about. I had to see it for myself, and unfortunately, what I discovered though is that things have changed. There is now a lot of fear in the community, which I expected to some degree, but the scale to which this change occurred horrified me.
Because of this, it was difficult to find participants for this issue, so those who did take part deserve a lot of credit for their courage and boldness. And a few need a smack in the face for standing me up or failing to submit stories as promised. While I try to keep things as positive as possible for the main Elska Magazine issue, I couldn't resist letting my honesty get brutal in the Elska Ekstra Warsaw companion zine. I also got more personal than ever there too, ending with a letter to an ex, but I published it only in the print version of Elska Ekstra Warsaw, which is now sold out.
Date of shooting: May 2019; Date of publication: January 2020
Amsterdam is one of those big cities that I always knew we'd get to someday, it was only a matter of when. Ultimately the reason for coming at this time was purely because I fancied seeing a friend from university who'd offered me a sofa to crash on should I ever want to visit. I used Elska as an excuse to do just that.
That wasn't the only reason of course. After the difficulty of finding guys in Warsaw, I wanted something a little smoother, and I was certain that Amsterdam would be an easier landscape for scouting. Nevertheless, we did have some difficulty in one particular area, which was finding ethnically Dutch men. I knew that Amsterdam was a very multicultural city, and I love that diversity, but when we got to our fifth photoshoot and none of the men were tall, blond, and dare-I-say slightly goofy-looking, I felt like I had to interfere with the spontaneity of things. So I asked the one Dutchie we had, Alex L, to ask some Dutch friends. He did, resulting in an issue with, erm, three tall, blond, goofy Dutch boys.
Date of shooting: September 2019; Date of publication: March 2020
It was during the first COVID lockdown in March that I started to panic. Although the next two issues were already shot, my next two shoot trips, both scheduled for late April seemed unlikely. At the time I thought the delay wouldn't be too long though, believing foolishly that people across the world would actually adhere to mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing guidelines, and travel would resume by summer. But I was more worried about the fact that so many shops had closed, shops that sell Elska. Therefore I decided to save the next release for later, when shops would hopefully be open.
But I didn't want to disappoint our subscribers by making them wait too long, so I decided to do a reissue of a past out-of-print Elska. We ran a poll amongst our Editors Circle, where deluxe subscribers and Patreon supporters get to vote on various Elska production decisions, and Elska Reykjavík won. Then, to make the new version more interesting, I decided to totally remake it from scratch, including the Elska Ekstra Reykjavík zine.
And then I had another idea, something that would create a sort of 'Elska Iceland trilogy'. I decided to write a brand new book called 'Fifteen Icelandic Swimming Pools'. This was a special edition based on a trip I took to Iceland the preceding November. Although that trip was meant to be a holiday, I ended up expanding the diaries I wrote there as I incessantly visited as many local pools as possible. I also added some snaps I took on my phone during that holiday, including one of a lad I shot up Akureyri, just for fun. The book turned out to be quite a success, despite the fact that I chose to release it in print only. I may try to write something similar again, when I can travel, that is.
Date of shooting: November 2015 and November 2019; Date of publication: May 2020
Elska KL was one of our most surprising issues, both because it took place in a city I hadn't really ever considered spotlighting, and because of how easy it was to make. I owe that ease in part to one particular elskan, Jules N, who spread the word to many of the guys who ended up in the issue. It's really a triumph, because this all took place in a majority Muslim country where homosexuality is officially illegal. Despite the risks, many queer people here are simply tired of hiding and want the world to know that they deserve better.
Unfortunately, this was our lowest selling issue of the year, and frankly, since this was our least white issue of 2020, this is to be expected. Still, it was not a poor seller by any means overall, and some of the comments we received about it from those who did read it were very uplifting. One example came from a subscriber who said he didn't expect to like the issue because he didn't usually fancy Asian men, but that after reading their stories and spending time with their pictures, he found himself really falling for some of them. It was a reading experience that made him feel so good, so proud, and he wanted to share that with us. It's proof that visibility truly can erode 'preference', and racism.
Date of shooting: January 2020; Date of publication: July 2020
Like Amsterdam, Sydney was a city I thought we'd very likely get to eventually. The problem is, there was no one there offering me a couch to crash on, and this is a bloody expensive city. That's why I came only for four full days, basically so as not to blow my budget. As could be expected therefore, I exhausted myself beyond belief, both because of the rush to photograph fourteen men in such little time and because it was extremely hot, some days hitting 40C.
On the upside, the men were an absolute pleasure. A particular highlight was Bryce R, someone who'd been reading Elska since we began. It's always fun to talk to someone who actually knows my work, but perhaps more fun was the setting he chose — Obelisk Beach, a nude beach. Me getting naked during a shoot and then wading in the warm sea after we finished was a memory I'll never forget. And one I'd love to repeat.
Date of shooting: January 2020; Date of publication: September 2020
Although it feels foolish to admit now, I really had no idea that COVID-19 would stick around so long. By the time that summer arrived, after losing two shoot trips from April, I was afraid that the next two shoot trips (for September) would also end up cancelled. Somehow I still had this insane faith that the world would get better by then, but luckily I was just pessimistic enough to do a Plan B. That would be to shoot a city in my home country, the UK, in a city where virus rates had been low, Belfast.
I spent nearly a month in the city, much longer than any Elska city before, essentially because the first half was meant for quarantine following my flight from the USA. Despite all the time, this city was a struggle, with more cancellations, no-shows, and general difficulty finding participants than anywhere I'd ever been. That Belfast should be the source of so many troubles (no pun intended) surprised me. But this difficulty is part of why I find the resulting Elska issue so fascinating. In addition to the usual bunch of fun stories about bar-hopping and hooking up, there was also a lot of anger, specifically about the conservatism and shame that reign in society here for many. Precisely what caused so much difficulty for me. This combination makes for an atypical Elska reading experience, which is a good thing. It would boring if they were all the same, right?
I should add though that I actually liked Belfast. Genuinely. I'd even consider returning one day. Elska Derry perhaps? Or Elska Londonderry? I'd let the Editors Circle decide that one!
Date of shooting: August 2020; Date of publication: December 2020
And now for some awards… based on a combination of statistics, feedback from readers, and personal choice:
- Top selling issue of the year: Elska Amsterdam
- Lowest selling issue of the year: Elska Kuala Lumpur
- Top selling Elska Ekstra zine of the year: Elska Ekstra Sydney
- Lowest selling Elska Ekstra zine of the year: Elska Ekstra Amsterdam
- Best stories (based on the amount of letters we received praising them): Elska Kuala Lumpur
- Best photography (based on the amount of letters we received praising them): Elska Sydney
- Highest proportion of full nudity: Elska Amsterdam
- Lowest proportion of full nudity: Elska Belfast
- Prettiest puss-puss (we always manage to shoot a lot of cats): The little white one pictured with Arthur T in Elska Amsterdam
- Cutest woof-woof (we meet a lot of dogs too): Sebastian G's overexcited pup in Elska Warsaw
- Top todger (indeed, we do get plenty of DMs from fans actually wanting to tell us which dicks they really love): Mateusz D's snake of a willy from Elska Warsaw
- Best bum (another fan favourite — seems that hairy is in vogue): Emilio V from Elska Warsaw
- Favourite story of the year (my choice): Tie: ‘Pomegranate’ by Lucas H in Elska Sydney and 'Czarne Chmury' ['Black Clouds'] by Lew Ż in Elska Warsaw
- Favourite picture of the year (my choice): The shadowy dick and balls on page 177 of Elska Sydney
- Best cover of the year (I get so many compliments on this one): Elska Reykjavík
- Crush of the year (the guy who makes me most regret my professionalism): Gary P from Elska Sydney
If you’re wondering what Elska has in store for 2021, we do have a couple of the next issues already photographed and ready, but we're waiting a little while for shops to reopen following more lockdowns to release them. However, in about a month's time we will help tide you over with a remake of one of our sold-out older issues, as voted by our Editors Circle. More details to come soon.