How we choose an Elska city

Liam Campbell
8 min readOct 13, 2023

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Over the past eight years I've published forty-three editions of my Elska Magazine project, with each issue made in a different city and focused on sharing stories and photographs of ordinary local men. Last month we invited members of our Editors Circle, which includes all our deluxe annual subscribers and Patreon supporters, to take part in our 'Great Big Ballot'. Here they nominated any three cities in the world where they'd like to see one of next year's issues made. The five cities which received the most nominations are now on a second ballot, and the one that receives the most votes will be the setting of one of next year's six new issues.

While we wait for those results to come in, I thought I'd take some time to discuss how we choose an Elska city, and to spotlight some of the nominations from the Great Big Ballot.

An image of Mykola K, from Elska Lviv, originally our very first issue and then re-issued with a second edition in early 2023

The primary goal of Elska's city choices

During the first year of Elska, cost was the main factor behind our city choices. That's why six of the first seven issues were made in Europe (to take advantage of cheap transport from my home base in London) and why most of these involved sponsored hotel stays or even couchsurfing. Nevertheless I tried to be as geographically and culturally diverse as possible with these, featuring cities in Ukraine, Germany, Iceland, Portugal, Turkey, and Wales. (The only non-European city in this early period was Taipei, which came as a result of finding a crazy-cheap mistake fare on Air China and then staying two nights in a hotel for free, then four in a cheap hostel, and then three on the sofa of one of the guys we photographed there).

After this initial period though, as Elska's coffers started to grow, I was able to achieve what was always the primary goal behind Elska's location choices. It was never about where I wanted to travel personally; rather it was about having a diverse geography. If one issue was made in Europe, then the next should ideally be made on another continent, the next on another continent, and so on. Diversity is important and visibility is powerful, but I never wanted to achieve this through scouting for token 'types' and ticking boxes; diversity would be achieved through the choice of locations, not the choice of 'models'.

Our first issue to move beyond Europe was our fifth, Elska Taipei. Here's Kerwin C from that series

A secondary goal of Elska's city choices

During the second year of Elska I was proud to have taken my work beyond Europe, not only to Taipei but also Yokohama and Mumbai. And in the years that followed I took Elska to places like Dhaka, Manila, Casablanca, Tbilisi, Perth, São Paulo, Providence… basically every continent except Antarctica. However, my zeal for featuring places that are a little less expected is unfortunately not matched in terms of sales. It quickly became apparent that our issues made in big, Western, and white gay metropolises like Berlin, San Francisco and Amsterdam were subsidising the issues made elsewhere.

On one hand, I like this 'balance' of cities, having some expected places and some more surprising places; furthermore, even in the expected cities we surprise with our featuring of regular locals. But on the other hand, the constant reminder that non-white bodies are less 'valuable' is so gutting that at many times I've felt like packing in the entire project. For example, the very poor sales of our Bangkok issue, a gorgeous and fascinating city that is one of the gayest places on Earth, suggested that Asian bodies just don't sell. And the similarly low sales of our Almaty (Kazakhstan) issue, a city with a mixed Asian and white ethnic population, made me wonder how many more copies we'd have sold if we'd put a white guy on the cover instead of an Asian guy. Actually, I don't need to wonder — after forty-three issues I've enough experience to know the answer.

Did you catch me mentioning Tbilisi? This is the destination of our 44th issue, coming in November 2023

The Great Big Ballot

There is a bit of silver lining here though. It's that after eight years with steady growth in readership (although sadly a fair few of the independent and queer bookshops that supported us have gone out of business), we have a bit more money to put towards not caring what sells and simply doing what we want. Or at least feeling less pressure about whether where we went would work financially. And this includes offering our most loyal readers the chance to have what they want, which is by formally nominating where they'd like to see us go.

So we launched our 'Great Big Ballot', which offered our most loyal readers the chance to choose one of next year's issue locations. After a month of tallying their ideas, these are the five cities that received the most nominations (in alphabetical order):

  • Auckland, New Zealand
  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Chicago, USA
  • Prague, Czechia
  • Santiago, Chile
Thinking of our five nominees, I don't think we've ever shot a Chicagoan, a Czech, an Argentinian, or a Chilean… but we did once shoot a Kiwi. That was Logan W from Elska Montréal vol.2

Beyond the ballot

If you're looking at the five cities above and thinking they're not so unusual and quite white, well, I suppose that's part of the problem in the methodology of such a ballot system. Sure, we got nominations for places like Port Louis (Mauritius), Accra (Ghana), and Phnom Penh (Cambodia), but the likelihood that dozens of people would nominate the same of these cities and make it onto a run-off ballot was slimmer than a Chicago or a Prague. But as I stated above, part of the benefit of having a little more money in the bank is that we can afford to go to some of the places that might not sell so well, doing it because it's what we fancy and because we believe that diversity makes the Elska project as a whole more appealing and worthy.

For example, I think it sounds pretty boring to describe Elska as a publication that showcases the gays of Berlin, London, and Sydney. How basic! Doesn't Belfast, Bombay and Bogotá sound more compelling? Well, I guess not to the masses, but I never started this work to be popular. I'm used to being a weirdo.

Did I just call Berlin 'basic'? Here's David P, from Elska Berlin

Ten very honourable mentions

So I thought I'd mention some of the more surprising nominations from our Great Big Ballot below. And I invite you to get in touch with your thoughts about any of these options. After all, we endeavour to make six issues a year, which means we've got slots for five more beyond the one that ultimately wins the Great Big Ballot.

  • Rome, Italy — Just missing the top 5 was Rome. Perhaps it's odd that we've still not featured an Italian city… Honestly we hardly have any Italian customers and only one shop in Italy sells Elska (and it doesn't sell well there), so maybe Italy just isn't a very Elska sort of place… Well, the real truth is that we'd planned Italian issues twice before, but both ended up cancelled. First was Palermo (but shooting in Warsaw overran so Palermo got scrapped) and second was Milan, scheduled for May 2020 (but then COVID started, and as you'll recall, Milan was the epicentre at that time).
  • Edinbugh, Scotland — Receiving the eighth most nominations was the Scottish capital, so it also misses out on the final ballot. The good news for Scotophiles is that we've already shot a Glasgow issue, and it's coming early in the new year. The bad news is that Glasgow was 60th place in our nominations phase, so maybe we should have chosen Edinburgh. Oops!
  • Miami, USA — After Chicago, the US city receiving the most nominations was Miami, coming in at 10th place. However, I did merge votes for Fort Lauderdale with Miami. If I hadn't done that, then the second-most popular US city would have been Seattle.
  • Barcelona / Madrid, Spain — Interestingly, these two big Spanish cities were back to back, in 14th and 15th places, respectively. We're very likely to publish an issue in one of these cities anyway, but which one?
  • Belgrade, Serbia — It would be awesome to do an issue in the Balkans, and although I'm personally a big fan of Sarajevo and I've long been fascinated by Skopje, it's probably wisest to choose the Serbian capital. It is genuinely one of the gayest cities in the world, a fact that little seem to know about beyond the region. But the problem is, doesn't everyone kind of hate Serbia?
  • Beirut, Lebanon — Like Milan, this was another city that we actually had scheduled back in 2020. Flights and accommodation were booked and several contacts had been made… and then there was that massive explosion at the port, one that actually hit the Airbnb we had booked. So Beirut was reluctantly cancelled. And as of now, with (at the time of writing) Israel about to embark on a ground offensive into Gaza, maybe this is still not the right time to head to the region. On another note, I would be interested in the idea of some sort of Lebanese abroad project, because I know there has been so much emigration in the past few years.
  • Munich, Germany — Our third biggest customer base in the world is Germany (first is USA, second is Canada), so probably we're overdue making another Elska there (our second issue was made in Berlin). Eight different German cities received nominations (plus two in Austria), but Munich got the most.
  • Nuuk, Greenland — Receiving three nominations, this is yet another city that we made serious inroads into featuring, but we just couldn't find enough participants willing to do a shoot and story there. With a population of 17,000, that's probably not surprising, but still a disappointment. 'Elska Nuuk' really does have a nice ring to it!
  • Tashkent, Uzbekistan — Another three nominations gave a nod to Tashkent. This is a place I'd love to visit, just maybe not for Elska. After all, one of the guys in our Almaty issue originally is from Tashkent and he could not stop talking about how awful a city it was to live in for gays. So maybe not right for right now. Or we tackle it in an Elska Casablanca style with more focus on interviews instead of images. Hmm.
  • Shanghai, China — Quite shockingly, the top Asian city in our nominations only reached 27th place, and that was Shanghai. I guess it's a sign that Asia is the most undesirable location for our work. That makes me super sad to hear, but I'm still proud that so far we've published issues made in ten Asian cities. Hmm, maybe we've actually over-represented that continent.
We did get a lot of nominations for various Italian cities; if we'd combined these into one then surely it would have received the most nominations. But alas, Italy will have to keep waiting. Or you can always meet Federico L, one of our Italians in Elska Bern, our first Swiss edition

If you'd like to vote for one of the five cities in our Great Big Ballot, run-off, ballots are provided to all deluxe annual subscribers and Patreon supporters.

Liam Campbell is editor and chief photographer of Elska Magazine, a project devoted to sharing the bodies and voices of men from LGBTQ communities all over the world.

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Liam Campbell

Editor + Chief Photographer of Elska Magazine, a gay photography + culture mag, sharing local boys and local stories from around the world.