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(“If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there”
…with Michael B from Taipei)

Every time I plan an Elska issue and start contacting boys to take part, I often get a reponse like “I’m not Icelandic – is it okay?” or “I’m not born in Taiwan, so I guess you won’t want me”. Haven’t people heard of multiculturalism?  Of course it’s ok. The issues aren’t meant to be ethnically exclusive but just a portrait of a city’s residents. It doesn’t matter where you were born or what’s in your blood, but just that you live in the city.

Michael B is obviously not ethnically Taiwanese (which is a complicated thing to define in itself). He’s originally from Canada, and ethnically I have no idea, but he’s not First Nations… or at least he doesn’t look it. But he lives in Taiwan, one of the cohort of English teachers, and that makes him ‘eligible’ for the Taipei issue. 

I also taught English for a year, not in anywhere as exotic as Taiwan, but rather in Poland. Still, it was a cultural adventure, with a new language to learn and various hurdles to cope with. I went because I needed a change. I didn’t know where I was going in life, and I don’t know why I chose Poland, but it didn’t matter. Michael also had no particular reason to choose Taipei, but I suppose he needed a change, or an adventure, or something. 

Is it brave? Sure, but (no offense – Michael) it’s not that big of a deal. Things have a way of working themselves out anywhere you go, and the challenge of it helps you grow. And if it’s a disaster then at least you’ll leave with interesting stories to tell. Who wants to be boring and stagnant?

Michael’s story in the issue related to Alice in Wonderland. After I read his text, I got myself a copy of the Lewis Carroll book and read it myself. Could you say that Alice was ‘brave’ to jump down the rabbit hole? I wouldn’t say that, but she did it anyway. As gallingly useless as she is, I admire for that. The problem is that I keep jumping down them, still looking for my home.

See more of Michael B and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(Taiwanese or Chinese?… with Temelalj C from Taipei)

Demographics are a tricky and sensitive thing in Taiwan. Ethnically over 95% of the population is Han Chinese, but anyone born in Taiwan typically considers their nationality and even ethnicity to be “Taiwanese”. But the Han Chinese only started to arrive in the 16th century, while the native / ethnic / aboriginal Taiwanese began to settle here more than 4000 years ago. DNA links their roots with both Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander bloodlines.

Currently the aboriginal Taiwanese make up about 500,000 persons, or just over 2% of the total population. These include various tribes, such as Paiwan, of which two of the Taipei Elska Boys are descendent from: namely Temelalj C and Gemi Sakinu Z. As Gemi described in his story in the issue, there’s a lot of discrimination to deal with, something that I asked some non-aboriginals about.

One guy (I won’t reveal who) told me that if you’re in a café and you see some aboriginals (they’re typically easy to spot with their darker skin and different facial features), whispers will start. Occasionally you may even see people shuffle seats, he said. Then there’s people who exoticise and fetishise them, basically wanting to f*ck them but not actually date them. “You wouldn’t bring one home to meet your parents”, he said shamefully. They’re basically low down the social chain, though probably above the Thai and Filipino migrant workers.

Another guy I shot (I also won’t say who) acted like they don’t even exist. I mentioned that I’d shot a “native Taiwanese” guy that morning and he said “what do you mean? I’m native Taiwanese.”

“No, I mean ethnic Taiwanese,” I clarified, but he still didn’t get it.

“I’m ethnic Taiwanese,” he said, adding “I was born here.”

“No, but you’re of Chinese blood,” I said.

He shrugged his shoulders with some annoyance and said “oh, you’re talking about aboriginals.”

I guess the problem is that the majority of the Taiwanese population are so keen to separate themselves from the People’s Republic of China that they cling on to this title Taiwanese in order to asset a difference. This in turn marginalises the ethnic Taiwanese. It’s a sort of racist result of a political problem.

My advice for visitors to Taiwan is to be careful with the word ‘Chinese’ – the cuisine is ‘Taiwanese’ and the language is ‘Mandarin’! But the people, that’s just a minefield. Just remember that the island is filled with a mixture of people, all of whom have their right to be here, but some of their voices are louder than others’.

See more of Temelalj C and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(Planning to Retire in Tamsui…with Jo’i D from Taipei)

For the Taipei issue, more than any other, I encouraged the boys to choose where they wanted to shoot. For Issue (01) Lviv and (02) Berlin, the locations were all pre-planned by me and my assistant Andriy. For (03) Reykjavík and (04) Lisbon I started to loosen up a bit but still kept things quite controlled. 

For Taipei, however, I was very open. Partly this was just because I didn’t know where to go. Tourist literature about Taipei, in English anyway, isn’t so abundant yet. Furthermore, my tactic of dropping random pins on Google maps and then looking at Streetview didn’t reveal much of anything inspiring. I felt a bit lost, so I sought guidance from the boys. And that’s probably not a bad idea in future – they live there after all – so why not let them decide, not just ‘cos the locale might look good on film but ‘cos the place means something to them?

Jo’i D suggested we shoot in Tamsui, right by the riverside. I had a quick look at pics online and was instantly on board. It was almost an hour on the MRT train from central Taipei though, but worth the ride. I instantly fell in love and starting asking Jo’i if he knew how much a flat there would cost. I was already planning to retire in Tamsui.

When you arrive at the station, it looks like a pretty typical modern Asian city, with lots of mid-rise buildings crammed with shops and restaurants and roads clogged with traffic. But then you just walk two minutes toward the riverfront and things calm. With a backdrop of mountains and a cooling breeze, the boardwalk is a place to feel calm from the bustle.

On Tamsui Old Street there are plenty of vendors and street food (like in all of Taipei, the culture is all about street eats).  There’s a bit of the charm of an English seaside town apparent, except instead of sticks of rock for sale, you can buy sticks of homemade Italian-style nougat. You also find a lot of vendors selling whole deep-fried squids, tentacles and all. If there’s one negative thing I can say about Tamsui is that the whole town smells like fried squid… but I suppose you get used to it. 

I’ll be honest. Taipei is super cool but it’s not the prettiest place by any stretch. But Tamsui is pretty, so if you’re in Taipei and start tiring of the grime, head north on the MRT to the end of the line. Oh and there’s boats here that take you to Bali… Bali, Taiwan anyway!

See more of Jo’i D and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(Music is Drugs… with Kerwin C from Taipei)

Nothing has the power to lift my mood more than music. That’s why the Elska Mixtape is so integral to the process of making Elska. This playlist of songs that I create before each making each issue and play over and over on my headphones during shoot week and the surrounding weeks does a lot for me. Every song lends a line from its lyrics to the title of each photospread, and sometimes the mood or style of the shoot is affected by it too. But more than that, these tunes are my motivation for the early mornings, long days, the fun and the bullshit of it all.  ​

Generally the Elska Mixtape is already made before I go to the city for shoot week, but on the day I shot Kerwin C, two songs were added, and they’re two of my favourites in the Taipei series. 

When I got to Kerwin’s place, a small studio apartment with a sort of green paradise of a kitchen on the terrace, in Songshan, he had his own mixtape on. I was enjoying his taste, but then something happened when “Maybe You” by Say Lou Lou came on. I sort of broke into pieces, but in the loveliest way, as if my body was ice and was shredding down as a snowstorm. I breathed in the cold, icy air and it filled me with immense energy. And that’s when I told him to pick up the beanbag, which I shot several frames of him with.

Sometimes music gives me this sort of maniacal feeling. I can’t say whether a beanbag was a good accompaniment or not, but it felt joyously right at the time. Nor would I normally talk in metaphors like the above snowstorm one, but music alters me. Music for me is like drugs – I don’t know really what I’m doing on it, but it feels really good. 

After the shoot, I asked for a decent coffee place nearby.  I ended up walking to Café Junkies. The music they played was epic. If I lived in Taipei, I’d be there every day. The track that hit me there was “Yours Forever” by Generationals, perhaps my favourite track of the Taipei Mixtape.

I wish I could afford to go back to Taipei just to alternate between music listening sessions with Kerwin C and coffee time at Café Junkies. I’d be devising every Elska Mixtape there, giving each upcoming issue a bit of a Taipei flavour. Go on, subscribe now and help contribute to the “buy Liam a flight to Taipei and some coffee money” fund. Cheers.

See more of Kerwin C and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(My Taipei Bromance… with Austin W from Taipei)

Austin W was the Pedro C of the Taipei issue. Like the aforementioned Lisbon Elska boy, I was infatuated by his style. It felt like a crush but in a bromance sort of way, or like how a teenager might look up to an older brother or cousin who is just so cool and becomes a target of aspiration. Luckily I had an assistant for both shoots – without Roman or Andriy I’d have turned to jelly in their presence.

Austin chose a location that was so my style. It was a riverside park under a load of overpasses – everything was grey and green, plus a bit of blue. I love this kind of ugly-beautiful, a bit of harsh modernity mixed with nature. This was the first day in the entire Taipei trip that had any sunshine or blue sky whatsoever. Truthfully I’d have preferred this shot in the rain, with glistening wet concrete, but at least we stayed dry. 

Before we met I thought Austin was going to be a diva. He messaged me a couple days before to say he was worried about his hairstyle’s ability to stay in tact in the outdoors, and if it would be ok to wear a cap. “Whatever you want is fine with me,” I said, though he was unable to see me rolling my eyes. In person, however, he was no diva at all. In fact he was a bit shy and also very cool.  We also had some stuff in common, like a love for music and a good coffee place. He gave me some recommendations, both of which I went to and both of which were excellent. If you’re in Taipei, check them out: Paper Street Coffee Company; and a place whose English translation comes out as Worker’s Livelihood Apartment.

Anyway, I got so charmed by Austin that as we were shooting I decided that, without seeing the pics yet, I wanted him to be the Elska Taipei cover boy.  The only problem was that, as fabulous as our location was, it wasn’t representative enough of Taipei in general to be a backdrop for a cover. So as we walked back to the station after the shoot, I spotted a more typical Taipei street and asked if I could take a few more pics. I didn’t tell Austin why, because if he did make the cover, I wanted it to be a surprise. In the end, of course, he did make the cover. It’s my little ‘gift’ to my Taipei bromance boy.

See more of Austin W and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(Pushing the ISO… with Owen C from Taipei)

I’m usually pretty good with planning and organisation. I even spent a year in Project Management for that big corporation that Carly Fiorina ran into the ground. But a few weeks before my trip to Taipei I realised that, contrary to my assumption, Taiwan does not use the same electric current as Europe. My strobes and external flash equipment runs on 220V and Taiwan is on 110V, which means that my lights would barely flicker out there. 

So I went on Amazon and ordered a 110V strobe… two weeks later a 220V strobe arrived. I wrote the company to complain and they said they sent the 220V because of my London address, assuming I’d ordered the wrong one. I was furious and there was no time to order another one. So I ran a few experiments pushing the ISO way up to its grainiest, grittiest heights and working with only available light. Ultimately, this would make my shoots even more natural, right? And that’s what Elska is supposed to be about, isn’t it? Or would the high ISO be too rough looking? 

I decided to do the Taipei issue without flash. Owen C was one of the first I shot there in the dark indoors, shot at home with just his own lamps and room lights. The main issue can be yellowness, but when it’s severe I can just go to black and white. That’s no problem as far as I’m concerned. 

I’m now converted. Issue (06) will be shot in a 220V country but I’m contemplating leaving my lights at home anyway.  

See more of Owen C in Elska Ekstra 5.2

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(Parents are the Worst… with James B)

I used to be a teacher. One of the first jobs I had was two years in Texas, where I taught French at a high school to kids aged 14 – 18. It was a public school rather than a religious school, but everywhere in Texas is religious. I remember on my first day as teachers introduced themselves, the usual “where are you from?” and “how do you like Dallas?" questions went alongside "what church do you go to?” No one would ever ask such a question in England – religion is a private thing, but this was not England. I almost chose to say I was Jewish, just so they’d leave me alone, because anything would be better than saying I didn’t go to church at all, that I was an atheist. God forbid! ​

Anyway, my English mentality caused a few problems throughout my career, namely my lack of ability to sense what could be deemed offensive to them. There’s a lot of stories I could tell, but just one example was when, as a treat before the Thanksgiving long weekend, I showed the students a French film called La Doublure [The Valet]. There was no nudity, just a minor sex scene which I fast-forwarded through. However, the next day the assistant principal called me in to discuss the complaints he received from parents.

The issue was moral, since it was implied that two unmarried characters had an affair, thus committing the grave sin of fornication. I was frankly pissed off but it was impossible to argue or defend myself. The best I could do was claim foreigner’s ignorance and promise to try harder to see their moral point of view. 

Parents are the worst and they will always win. But some parents are worse than others, which was a primary reason why I left Texas. 

See more boys and read their stories in Elska Magazine.