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(Fruit Trees… with Cenk Y from Istanbul)

I grew up having never met my father. But I had a close relationship with my grandfather and passed every weekend with my grandparents, spending a particularly large amount of time in the back garden. Even before he retired, he managed to have time to tend to a huge garden, organised into rows and patches like a working farm. His was full of flowers (especially irises, gladioli and roses), vegetables (including sweetcorn, sweet peas, and melons), and an assortment of fruit trees (plum, apple, cherry, fig, loquat and mulberry). 

The latter two fruits were ones I’d never seen in a market. And since I moved to London, I never came across loquats or mulberries again. Perhaps he knew of these fruits from his Sicilian heritage, I never asked. But finally in Istanbul I came across them again. Not only were they in the greengrocers but hanging off the trees, seasonably ripe. I helped myself and was transported. 

My childhood had its distresses, and though I’m not going to claim that it was worse than anyone else’s, it was at my grandparents’ house where I felt most safe and free to be myself. And having spent so much time with grandpa in his garden, tasting these fruits again made me feel safe again. 
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He passed many years ago and it sort of surprises me that even now I can miss him so much that tears come. And it happened in Istanbul, triggered by something as surprising as the taste, smell and texture of a fruit. One day when I’m older I’m going to have a garden and I’m going to grow these trees myself, enjoying the fruits of my childhood every summer. And I hope they will bring me comfort and safety. But for now I can always visit Istanbul.

See more of Cenk Y and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul

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(Ég Elska Straight Guys… with Hakan T from Istanbul)

Yes, I’ll admit it – not all guys in Elska are gay, although most are. So are most of the readers. But when we meet and shoot a guy, we don’t necessarily even discuss sex or sexuality, so inevitably some aren’t LGBT. Part of me wonders if the Elska boys should be exclusively LGBT, but I feel that if a straight guy is up for being in a mag that’s full of 90% queers and has a 95% gay readership, then he should be welcome. And it’s not like I always say “this mag is pretty gay, are you OK with that?” – the reality is that I don’t need to ask. They know and they’re cool with it. 

Hakan T is one of the straights. As we were walking he mentioned his girlfriend so it became clear. But even before that I should have known. I was just so comfortable with him. There wasn’t any sense of [sexual] tension between us and I felt completely OK about myself, not worried about how I looked, not worried I’d be judged in any way. It was so refreshing. And it made me lament the lack of heteros in my life. Pretty much everyone I know is queer, apart from a couple of straight girls.

In fact, I might have actually put myself in this gay bubble out of fear of rejection and homophobia. I still have this shameful tendency to be ambiguous about my personal life when I meet new people, so I end up seeming closed and reserved in some misguided attempt to protect myself. But even though when I was a teenager, I got called “faggot” too often, it doesn’t happen anymore. Certainly not in London, and not so much in Istanbul either. 

Spending time with Hakan was enriching, and it made me want to get some straights into my circle. There’s just one problem with straight friendships… having to talk about football. But I suppose I can learn to deal with it in exchange for them dealing with me muttering on about, I don’t know, Kylie or cocksucking.

See more of Hakan T and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul

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(What Brought Elska To Istanbul… with Onur A)

The idea behind doing an Istanbul came over time. I can pinpoint three things that led us here.

1) Making the Berlin issue… Onur A spends a lot of time in Berlin. His husband lives there and they currently divide their time between Berlin and Istanbul. Of course, Onur isn’t the only Turk in the German capital. Turks form the largest ethnic minority in Berlin (perhaps up to 200,000 live in the city), and Berlin is the city with the largest Turkish population outside Turkey. But the frustrating thing was that when we were making the Berlin issue, we expected to have a few Turks in the issue, but we didn’t have any. It’s not for lack of trying – we contacted loads from the Turkish community, but none of them were up for it.

2) Shooting Tusan C… So although no Turks were shot in Berlin, we did happen to meet and shoot one in the Reykjavík issue, Tusan C. Together we discussed the possibility of doing an issue in Turkey, whether he thought it would be possible to achieve, or if society there would be too conservative. He wasn’t sure, but at least he directed me to aim for either Istanbul or Izmir. Places like the capital Ankara, or somewhere that always fascinated me, Trabzon, would be, he said, too difficult. But although we talked about it, I didn’t seriously consider it yet.

3) The letter from Murat… After the Reykjavík issue was published and its Tusan C shoot, we got some attention from Turkey’s premier gay magazine, GZone. Their editor Murat Renay wrote me and said we should definitely do a Turkish issue. We chatted and I voiced my reservations, but he assured me it wouldn’t be hard to find guys, that Istanbul wasn’t the conservative city I expected. He also said he’d help us find local boys, so I took his word for it and pulled the trigger. And there you have it, what brought Elska to Turkey.

Read and see more in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul

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(The Introverts… with Can A from Istanbul)

My first contact with Can A came from a very enthusiastic email where he said he wanted to be part of the Elska project. So excited was he that he didn’t only want to be photographed but he volunteered to be an assistant for other photoshoots during the Istanbul project. Then a quick look at his social media showed that he was active on the scene, had a ton of friends, and was practically a celebrity. I assumed I’d have a gregarious little extrovert on my hands, but I was greatly surprised when after meeting him in person, he was the quietest guy I’d met in Istanbul.  Was he shy? Perhaps it would take time to break the ice, but it barely even crackled. Was he an introvert? Is that even the same thing? I started to get confused about these notions and about myself, whom I tend to think of as an introverted and shy. But according to some basic psychology readings. I began to better understand these terms. It turns out that shyness and introversion are quite different things.

Introverts get off on being alone. It energises them. I’ve long enjoyed swimming and cycling, claiming that the best part is the ability to just think; it was often in a pool or on my bike where my creative ideas would come. And like classic introverts by definition, I don’t really like parties, I don’t like networking, I don’t like interacting with large groups of people. I’ve often called myself shy, but shyness is more about a fear of social situations. It’s about feeling anxiety at meeting people. This isn’t me. I can blend in fine at a party but I just don’t like it. 

So what’s the deal with Can A? Why was he so quiet? If he was shy, why would he want to be photographed? If I was shy, why would I do a job where I’m constantly meeting new people in an effort to work so intimately with them? I can’t really speak for Can A, for he didn’t really open up enough to make much of a judgment, but if you look up the definition of an extrovert, he fits none of the descriptions listed. So I guess we are both introverts… or maybe he was quiet because he just didn’t like me …I’d ask him, but I’m too shy!

See more of Can A (pronounced like ‘John’) in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul

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(331 Miles Away… with Furkan Y from Istanbul)

Furkan Y got in touch with us in response to a call put out on our behalf by the folks at GZone Magazine, Turkey’s one and only LGBT magazine. I replied to him with the main details, asked which date would be good and put him down on the schedule. 

He was really keen, and my first inkling of this came due to the fact that he submitted his story well before the shoot. Actually Istanbul was the most difficult issue to make so far in terms of guys submitting their stories by the deadline. But that’s for another story. 

My next inkling of Furkan’s keenness came a few days before the shoot when he messaged me to check where exactly we should meet. On an aside, I was going to shoot him in the Grand Bazaar, but a pass through the area instructed me that I hated the place. It was way too crowded, kinda lacking soul, and way too full of people who obviously weren’t Turks (I mean ladies in full burqas from the Arabian peninsula or aged Western backpackers). Yes, it may be an iconic Istanbul sight but it’s also on the verges of cliché, so I felt ok to abandon it. 
Anyway, without a location in mind, I asked Furkan where he lived, thinking I could choose a location near his place. “Ankara”, he said.

Erm, that’s the capital, 331 miles (533 km) away from Istanbul. I had no idea, but then I never asked. I just assumed he was from Istanbul as after all he answered a call to participate in the making of an Istanbul issue. But I wasn’t going to argue. He wanted this badly, so I would have to bend the rules on allowing a not-so-local boy into the issue.

We decided to meet at the top of Galata Bridge mainly ‘cos I knew he’d be able to find it (everyone knows where that is). On meeting him it was rather obvious that he wasn’t used to Istanbul. He didn’t know where he was going and seemed a little bit frightened by the mean streets of the big city. He also kept voicing his frustrations with Istanbul peculiarities that didn’t exist back home, such as the level of traffic and the lack of litter bins. But once the camera was on, he was in the zone, becoming the most prepared and considered poser of all the Istanbul boys. “Relax” I’d keep telling him, trying to break the poses, but he came a long way for this shoot, and he was going to do it his way.

See more of Furkan Y and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul

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(The Gay Beacon… with Sasha B & Tema P in Istanbul)

When I was doing my PhD, I spent a lot of time in Tbilisi, Georgia. At the time I remember several gay guys there talking about how much they loved Istanbul. The freedom, the nightlife, the artistic air, the cosmopolitanism, the colour… I know it’s based largely on prejudice but I wondered how gay guys from a Christian country could feel so blissful in a Moslem one. After seeing it for myself, however, I saw that they were right. And well, dogmatically at least Islam is no more anti-gay than Christianity, or than Judaism for that matter, but still I was surprised.

Of course it’s not Berlin or London, but for the region it certainly is a gay beacon, drawing people from countries all around it. I suppose if Georgians could travel easily to the EU, they might go to Amsterdam, but they need visas. So do Russians, which is perhaps a factor in why Sasha B and Tema P love Istanbul so much. They’re from Moscow and come often to Istanbul. Indeed it was during one of their long weekends to Istanbul that I met them. Even though they weren’t local boys, I decided to shoot them anyway, but I left them for the Istanbul series of Elska Ekstra rather than for the main issue.

But beyond Russians, Georgians, and other people from the Post-Soviet neighbourhood, Istanbul draws in LGBT people from the mostly Moslem countries of the region, being a gay haven in the Middle East. Syrians, Iraqis, Saudis and others flock here – indeed I saw quite a few on the gay apps when I was in town. And while I didn’t meet any Israelis when I was in town, I did shoot a guy who wore a Tel Aviv shirt, which he put on right as we were outside a mosque. lYes, there is a rising tide of religious conservatism doing its worst to stamp out the gaiety, but Istanbul remains resistant, strong and independent.
So what about after Elska Istanbul? People tell me that Beirut comes second as gayest city in the Middle East, so that could be the setting of a future Elska issue. Others say that gayest of all in the region would be Tel Aviv. Israel seems to have a very progressive society, and in fact the Israeli state dedicates 1/3 of its full tourism budget to attracting LGBT visitors. So yeah, Elska Tel Aviv is definitely on the list!

See more of Sasha & Tema and read their story in Elska Ekstra (6.1)

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(What Does Erotic Mean?… with Şahin C from Istanbul)

I recently got a letter from a Swedish reader about his experience reading Elska for the first time. He’d come across Elska via our Instagram feed, where he recognised a friend who was in the Taipei issue. He was instantly worried that his friend may have done something stupid, may have been misguided or tricked into posing for a magazine that he’d come to regret. He quickly ordered a copy, read it cover to cover and wrote me to say how relieved and pleased he was that the content was tasteful, artful, and not the erotic mag he’d expected it to be. He then asked if we’d consider doing a Stockholm issue, and if so, that he’d love to be photographed for it. As I told him, I’d love to go to Stockholm and he’s very welcome to be in it. 

​​I’ve long been uncomfortable with the word ‘erotic’. When an early article written about Elska referred to it as ‘erotic’ in the headline, I was upset. I felt it gave Elska a seedy connotation. And as I can see from the letter I got, such articles may scare readers away from Elska. On the other side of the coin, perhaps those expecting a porno are disappointed. 

But what does ‘erotic’ technically mean? A quick google search yields the definition “relating to or tending to arouse sexual desire or excitement”. For me, my intention with Elska isn’t to be erotic, but if people find it erotic, I suppose I can’t help that.

That being said, what is pornography? Another google search refers to it as “printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate sexual excitement”. Ok, so since there’s no intention to cause stiffies, Elska isn’t porn… but it might be erotic. And there’s nothing I can really do about that.

See more of Şahin C and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (06) Istanbul