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Remembering last year’s shoot with Austin W, who became the cover boy of our Elska Taipei edition. Seen here with our Taipei assistant Roman Tanitchev, evening out his backpack straps, ‘cos you know he’s meticulous like that.

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(The Power of a Smile… with Joe F from Taipei)

I fell in love with Joe F almost instantly after we met. He didn’t really speak English at all, so there was little conversation, but he said a lot with his smile. And this guy almost never stopped smiling. 

I met Joe F along with Jo’i D in Tamsui. Roman, my assistant for the Taipei project, found Jo’i and then Jo’i suggested his friend Joe to join as well. The more the merrier. At first the plan was to shoot Joe nude at home, but he couldn’t use his place to shoot and I didn’t want another hotel room shoot. So, although I’d have liked to shoot him naked, we opted instead for an outdoor shoot. Plus, although I love nudes, I already had five nude shoots in the Taipei collection and don’t want too many. I didn’t want to turn the Taipei issue into another Berlin issue!

Anyway, we were happily taking photos around Tamsui and then just as we walked past a quietish alleyway, Joe stopped to whisper something to Jo’i, who then translated to me that Joe wanted to go into that alley for a few stripped down pics. You can see the whimsy on his face, which I snapped just when a group of four old ladies happened to walk by and spot Joe with his trousers down. 

​Although I couldn’t chat to Joe, I still felt connected and like a friend. Everytime I looked at him he would smile back, and it melted my heart, making me feel safe and encouraging a serious bastard like me to smile too. A smile is a powerful, wonderful thing, and I think Joe may be the smiliest boy in Taiwan.

See more of Joe F and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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(Mitigating Culture Shock with Food… with Joseph W from Taipei)

I’ve heard several people tell me that they never go to McDonalds at home, but when they’re visiting another country they make a point of having a meal there. It’s to see if there’s any unique and country-specific items on the menu, and also just to find out if it tastes the same (somehow it always does). I suppose also a trip to McDonalds can be a way to mitigate homesickness. 

Taipei is well-known especially throughout Asia as a culinary wonderland. Most Asian tourists to the city go primarily for the food – for Chinese breakfast at Yong He Dou Jiang, for xiao long bao at Din Tai Fung, for gua bao at one of the city’s tantalising night markets, and for a bubble tea in the place where it was invented. But even with all this amazingness, there comes a point when a Western dude just wants a burger and chips – you can’t eat Chinese food every day, can you?! And even though Taipei has the best coffee in Asia, there’s something guiltily comforting about the familiarity of a Starbucks.

Sometime during the seventh day of Taipei Shoot Week was when I cracked. Two things happened. The first was that Roman, my assistant for Taipei, left to head back to Berlin early… so I didn’t feel the pressure to be “cool” and “adventurous" anymore. With no one there to judge me, I could swap Taiwanese fried chicken for the Kentucky variety. The second thing was that Joseph W invited me to stay over at his place for a couple of nights since he was going to Paris. So I’d be totally alone to indulge.

The first thing I did at Joseph’s place, a beautiful apartment with great views over the city, was to find British comedies on his Netflix. Then I popped out to 7-11 to get fresh milk so I could English up my tea. And next I went to McDonalds for McNuggets and a pineapple pie (they also had a sort of "surf and turf” burger with one beef patty on top of a fried salmon fillet… but that was beyond my adventure levels). 

Once back at Joseph’s I brewed a cuppa, cued up a marathon of “The IT Crowd”, and had my Western pig out. It genuinely was comforting. The funny thing was however that the very day I got back home to London, I was desperate to have Chinese food for dinner. And the very next day, I used a recipe I found online to make homemade shui jian bao, which I’d tried in a Taipei night market. So here I was, a few days after being homesick for England in Taiwan, being homesick for Taiwan in England.

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

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(Breaking Boundaries… with Gemi Sakinu Z from Taipei)

Without going into details and thus making matters worse, I heard from Gemi about some troubles online. He was getting very personal and creepy messages from a stranger who found him online. It can be so unsettling, even a little scary, and the same has been happening to me since I started Elska.​ I guess some people don’t realise that I’m just a guy. Every two months I go to some city, meet some boys and take their pics. Then I process them and paste them onto a PDF that I send to a printer. It’s not like I’m the editor of “Vogue” or something, but I’ve started to attract some weird people.

A few months ago a guy followed me on Twitter and messaged me that he’d like to meet up. I declined because he was a stranger. Now and again he’d message me to try to convince me, one time even sending me a list of other people he met on Twitter and encouraging me to contact them as references. I almost softened but finally gave a definitive “no, never" and he then reacted by launching a tirade asking his friends to block Elska Magazine on Twitter. 

Then last week I got a message on Facebook, also from someone I’d never met, saying "I want what you have… you are rich and successful.” I responded with an “lol and explained like I did above that I’m just a regular guy.”  He repeated it again and again until I said finally “what do you want me to say?”

His next response was “I want you to suck my fat cock.” Bizarre.

Then most recently there was a guy who’d seen me handing out Elska flyers in a bar and then messaged me on Grindr to tell me how ugly I was and how astonished he was that these hot guys would let someone like me photograph them. Why did he feel the need to tell me this?  

It’s times like these that I want to crawl underground, but I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing. I’m just going to have to find a way to grow a thicker skin. Or just learn to accept that the world is full of nutters and just to pay no mind.

See more of Gemi Sakinu Z and read his story in Elska Magazine issue (05) Taipei

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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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(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