Making a travel magazine when you can't travel… and the final results of the Elska Great Big Ballot
Over the past five-and-a-bit years I've travelled around the world to produce Elska Magazine, a series of publications highlighting gay lives through photography and personal storytelling. It's been a busy job, but I always managed to make it run like clockwork — one new city and one new issue every two months — but then the pandemic happened. Fortunately, 2020 started with two issues shot in January (before most of the world noticed COVID-19), and I was able to release them later in the year. I couldn't travel to make more issues though, and indeed the next three cities I planned to shoot in all had to be cancelled.
I scrambled to figure out what I could do, or rather where I could possibly travel to, and it required a lot of impulsivity, which is something I'm not great at. I'm a big planner, and with Elska I've always done things with very advanced notice, typically booking flights and accommodation for a future edition at least six months in advance, and planning each of that city's photoshoots one month in advance. With travel restrictions changing every week and infection rates bouncing up and down wildly, I couldn't manage it, I needed to try working differently.
The first thing I did was to re-issue a past sold out edition. I asked readers which one they wanted back and Reykjavík was the winner. But I couldn't keep reprinting past editions, I had to find some Plan-B city. My solution was to fly from my current home in the US to my old home in the UK, where the perks of being a British passport-holder would mean that I could enter the country while other nationals were banned from entry. I chose Belfast for my destination and it would later become Elska issue (31). And once there in Northern Ireland, and after a fortnight of quarantining, I moved over the invisible border south to the Republic of Ireland and made what would become Elska issue (32), Dublin.
This was in July and August, a time when much of the northern hemisphere was feeling like COVID may be over, but once the autumn set in, things started getting bad again. So I followed the summer down to the southern hemisphere and chose what was then perhaps the only country below the equator to allow me to enter without restrictions. That was Brazil, leading to Elska issue (33), São Paulo.
This brought us to December 2020, a time when I was sure the pandemic must be ending. With this optimistic mindset I decided to task some of my most loyal Elska readers, aka the ‘Editors Circle’ (this includes deluxe annual subscribers and Patreon supporters), with choosing a future location for an upcoming issue. They were asked to each nominate three cities anywhere in the world where they'd like to see Elska go. I then tallied all the nominations and these were the Top 5 cities:
1) Montréal, Canada
2) Barcelona, Spain
3) Buenos Aires, Argentina
4) Athens, Greece
5) Madrid, Spain
I then did a second round vote, called the Great Big Ballot, asking people to choose one of the top three, the winner of which would become a future 2021 Elska issue. Here's the results of that, which I only finally announce now, seven months later…
1st place — Montréal, Canada: 36.2%
2nd place — Buenos Aires, Argentina: 34.8%
3rd place — Barcelona, Spain: 29%
Immediately after the results were tallied I booked a trip to Montréal. But because of the continued uncertainty of travel I decided not to announce anything yet. That was the right decision, because when we got to April (my original date for Montréal), the Canadian border still wasn't open. I rebooked for June, which came and went, border still closed. I looked at the second choice, Buenos Aires, but Argentina was also closed. And so was Spain, so no third choice either. The fourth place choice though, Athens, was hopeful. I'd read in the news that Greece was planning to open up to vaccinated international travellers, so I booked a trip to there for exactly two weeks following what would be my second Pfizer dose… but then my flight was cancelled. Oh, and there was another trip scheduled for late July, but I just chose to nix that a few days ago as that city is currently having its biggest COVID wave, and vaccination rates in that country remain well below 10%. It's just not meant to be.
I was losing my mind. So I did the most practical thing and chose a city within the United States that was in drivable distance so that I wouldn't have to worry about flights or border controls. I also chose a city in the South, where people never gave a f*ck about COVID and believed Trump's rhetoric. At that time in April it was, erm, uncomfortable operating in a land of anti-maskers, but I got the job done, and this issue will be out in early autumn. Oh, and then when that trip was done I randomly flew to a country in Africa with open borders and did a completely impromptu issue there. That is due for release in late autumn.
This leads me to now and what to do with the Great Big Ballot results, which finally I decided to spill the beans about. I did promise my readers to shoot in the city they chose, and I intend to keep that promise. The Montréal trip is now scheduled for September, and even though the Canadian border is still closed, I guess I'll just have to keep rescheduling until Sexy Trudeau finally lets me in. And as for the alternate Athens trip, when that flight got cancelled I had it rescheduled for November. We'll see what happens. But whatever occurs I'm committed to keep Elska alive. I know it means a lot to many people, and probably more so now when many of us can't travel ourselves and enjoy travelling virtually via Elska.
Liam Campbell is editor + chief photographer of Elska Magazine, a project about travelling the world and sharing the bodies and voices of a bunch of local guys I happen to meet… when I can meet them!