Noting the Value of Gay White Bodies… and choosing not to give people what they want
This month I am celebrating seven years of my Elska project. During this time I've visited thirty-eight cities all over the world, met and photographed over six hundred men, and have published their images and stories in thirty-eight lovely little bookazines that I call Elska Magazine.
When I started Elska my goal was partly self-indulgent — to find a way to fund my two big passions, travel and photography. But I also had another goal, which was to prove to people that it's stupid to cling to the idea of having a 'type', that if you open yourselves to different kinds of people then the narrowness of such standards erode. I could use Elska to present a diverse group of ordinary men in a way that depicted them as just as beautiful, sexy, and compelling as the sort of men we typically see in mainstream gay media. And gradually with this exposure, people would start to come to my point of view.
To achieve my goals, I'd make sure to visit a variety of geographic locations, not just the big gay meccas of the West. And then I'd visit some of those expected places too, but I'd make sure that anyone was welcome to take part, not just models and celebrities. The result has been a mixture of Elska editions that includes cities like Bogotá and Berlin, Manila and Montréal, Dhaka and Dublin taking the spotlight.
I'm really proud of the work I've done, and especially for the variety of places and people I've shone my little Elska spotlight on. But I also think that over these seven years I've entered some sort of mid-career crisis… Despite the many letters I've received from readers who say they share my point of view about the diversity of beauty, and the many messages received from those who say their own points of view have expanded thanks to Elska, I've started to feel a little disappointed that the majority of our gay world still seems prejudiced, narrow-minded, and toxic.
Recently I met a longtime Elska reader randomly at a café (the result of someone seeing an Instagram story with my location and him coming to say hello as he was nearby). This person told me that his favourite issue of all time is Elska Dhaka, which I was heartened to hear (it's also one of my absolute favourites). But I was also disheartened when I recalled that it's one of our lowest selling issues. He seemed perplexed and asked why. My response was a gloomy, "Because I guess nobody cares about Bangladeshi men, or South Asian men in general." Just look at any mainstream gay magazine and you'll struggle to find any past covers with a South Asian on it.
My inkling could have been wrong though, so I decided to take a fresh look at our official sales stats. Out of the thirty-eight Elska editions released thus far, Elska Dhaka comes in at 30th place. So, not the lowest, but not great either, and definitely deserving higher. What about the best sellers? Well, if you look at the entire top ten best Elska sellers, only one of them has a non-white person on the cover. To be clear, 17 of our 38 issues have a person of colour on the cover, and only one of those makes the top 10. It is thus evident that white bodies are what people value the most, they're what people want, they're what people find beautiful, sexy, and compelling!
So how come most of the personal feedback I receive is in praise of the 'non-white issues'? Cynically, I could say it's people wanting to pat me on the back as a way to make themselves feel woke. They perhaps feel good about supporting a project that includes diversity, but then they don't actually want to buy the issues that highlight this diversity.
On a similar note, when I've spoken to some editorial staff of major LGBTQ magazines, they admit that they put people of colour and/or people of larger body types only very occasionally, and that these issues always sell the least. Yet they do it anyway for ethical box-ticking. To illustrate how many companies are starting to deal with this, note the popularity of magazines who release issues with multiple different covers. This is so that they can claim some sort of credit for diversity, but in actuality they print less copies of the POC covers than whatever version has the thirst-trap white boy on it.
I even tried something like this as an experiment. In November 2016 I released our 8th issue, Elska Toronto, which had a shirtless Asian trans man on the cover. It became our second-lowest selling issue of all time, and one which received some of the most and nastiest complaints. Then in August 2021 I reissued it but this time put a fully naked, beardy, masc, mixed race lad on the cover, and presto, it sold remarkably well. Interesting.
I always look back at the first year of Elska, when for our fifth issue we went to Asia, making Elska Taipei. The amount of negative feedback that came our way shocked me, including people asking to cancel or put on hold their subscriptions because they "just aren't into Asian men!" As a result, I could have followed the money and stuck to rich, white, Western cities, but instead it made me feel combative, rebellious, and empowered to keep giving people what they do not want!
As I write this article I feel a sense of catharsis, and a new sense of direction. I never started this project to make money, to be congratulated, or to be popular. I did it as a way to express my own values and follow my passions. So what if mainstream gays don't like it? They never liked me either, and that really doesn't bother me much. If anything, it makes me more determined to be myself, and even more unapologetically so.
So what does this mean for Elska? Well, it means that the roster of cities I had pencilled in for the year to follow is going to change. I'm going to visit more places whose gay communities are invisible to the world, the sort of places that the mainstream doesn't care about. Earlier I'd decided that I'd do more 'big gay cities', the sort of places where moneyed gay couples go to on weekend breaks. I thought I finally 'deserved' to start making good money, and that it was time I made decisions based on sound business sense.
But that's just not me. I'm not into business, I always do the bare minimum so I can focus on what I like — the travel, the photography, and the editing process. Plus when I think about what are my favourite issues, like Elska Dhaka, I know that when I look back at this work in my old age I'll feel proud for having made more of those kinds of issues.
I know I'm lucky to have been able to make such a queer artistic endeavour sustainable for this long, and if it means I need to give up and get a 'real job', fair enough. But at least I'll go down doing things my way. And who knows, maybe I'll come out of this mid-career crisis with more passion and vindication? And maybe with more time and more work, it won't be just the gay white bodies that are the most valued.
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.