Really, I Don't Hate Northern Ireland

A few weeks ago I released my latest issue of Elska, this one made in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Due to various factors, including what I call the 'care too much about what others think factor', it was one of the most difficult Elska series to make. And considering that this was our thirty-first city to be tackled, this is quite the statement. There have indeed been a lot of places that were easier than Belfast, including cities I expected to be more conservative like Kuala Lumpur, Istanbul, and Mumbai.

I like to be honest about my experiences, both in the main Elska Magazine print publication and especially in the companion zine I make called Elska Ekstra. I often treat Elska Ekstra like a personal diary, sharing my notes from the trip along with various unpublished outtakes, extra boys, and other bonus content. While I tried to keep the main Elska Belfast print mag more positive, I really let go for this Elska Ekstra Belfast zine. Some people really noticed.

Although I was sure to declare that I enjoyed Northern Ireland on a personal level, mentioning how at home I felt there, I don’t think I emphasised this enough. Last week I got a DM from a local Belfaster who apologised on behalf of his city for how horrible my trip had been. I also got an email saying that if he’d heard about my project when I was shooting, he’d have gladly helped make my time there go better. And then this morning I got another message asking if I truly hated Belfast that much.

Hate? Really, I don’t hate Northern Ireland. In all honesty, I’d go there tomorrow if I could. I’d have a coffee in my favourite café-cum-gallery Fendersky, then take a bike ride along the northbound lough-hugging National Cycling Route branch to Jordanstown, maybe hang out with some friendly local, and later have a nice chippy tea. I liked Belfast very much, I just didn’t have an easy time working there.

I should add that none of these messages were angry, not even in a passive aggressive way. They genuinely were concerned for me, and I suppose they understood where I was coming from. Yet another thing to like about Belfast, right?

It is nice to complain sometimes though, but perhaps I shouldn’t have let my Elska project be the shoulder to on which to cry. However, when I realised that after shooting 500 guys all over the world I’d been stood up only once previously, being stood up twice in Belfast became noteworthy. Declaring this is not meant to be about complaining but about revealing insights into society here, and gay life in particular. Dealing with a lot of cold feet and having such difficulty finding participants shows either that the culture is very shy, or that people are afraid to be so publicly outed. To add to that, getting angry responses from locals I’d approached that my work was disgusting and shameful meant that shame and disgust are probably emotions that appear here rather frequently.

My goal with Elska Magazine (the print mag) is to let the men I meet speak for themselves and their city, and then in Elska Ekstra I share some of my personal feelings. But this time I let some of my feelings be printed in the main mag too. Overall I don’t regret showing my emotions this time, but I do wish I could have been more tactful about it, and I wish I’d have taken more time to balance the space I gave to negative stuff with positive stuff.

One particular low point in Elska Ekstra was my declaration that the city included my worst ever photoshoot experience, and in my description of it I shared perhaps too much. This experience sent me into a multi-day depression and I used its confession in Elska Ekstra as a way of lifting myself out of it. Rather self-indulgent, I suppose, but I believe any opportunity to be honest about mental health should be taken. Nevertheless, I should have given more space to tell some happier stories about the city.

I could have talked about Gareth's antics in a park while wearing a hamburger-backpack and little else. I could have laughed about dodging rainstorms and discussing drag queens with Robert H. I could have recalled driving to the country and trying to talk to the cows with André N. I didn't even mention the guy who wanted me to be naked with him, and the multiple cups of tea we had as we forgot how exposed we were. If I ever get the chance to do a new edition of Elska Belfast, I'll be sure to add some of these stories.

Currently Elska Belfast is just nine copies away from outselling our Elska London, so maybe there really will be demand for a second edition one day. This sign of success proves that there is love out there for Northern Ireland, even if I didn't do the best job of showing it myself. Or maybe next time I'll do Derry/Londonderry. Hmm, I wonder if everyone's favourite Derry girl James will be down for taking part — I'm sure that would make for some fun stories!

Update: The day after publishing this story I got word from someone on Insta that a fake Elska account was set up, and it had been sending content from this issue to all sorts of people by DM. Specifically it was the nude pics of one specific guy from the Belfast issue, and it was being sent to members of his family, probably an attempt to humiliate him. As if being nude in our publication was humiliating? Shameful? Immoral? Oh dear, my issues with Northern Ireland continue…

Liam Campbell is editor and chief photographer of Elska, a bi-monthly publication that explores cities around the world through honest photography and personal stories of everyday guys from the local LGBTQ community.

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