Lessons from Ukraine... with Semen M from Elska Lviv

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(Before we begin, you're probably pronouncing this guy's name wrong. "Semen" is the romanised spelling of the Ukrainian name "Семен", which is pronouned "seh-men", rhyming with the word "seven". It's like a Ukrainian equivalent of "Simon".)

And with that out of the way, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on our first ever issue, Elska Lviv. After being out of print for over two years, last week we re-issued it, following a vote by Elska readers to choose which out-of-print issue to bring back to life. That original issue came out in September 2015 and it was obviously enough of a success to have allowed Elska to continue, through to seventeen cities so far. It also taught us some lessons, some of which are highlighted here:

1) Three days is not long enough to shoot an issue - Partly due to costs, and also to the fact that I still had a full-time job to get back to, the men in Elska Lviv were shot in a mere three days (all Elskas since have been done in seven to ten). The result is that apart from Marko K, Eugen K, and Taras D, everyone was shot in the city centre so there's not much variation in setting. Most also were shot not in their own homes but in the flat we rented for our stay.

2) Never read the comments - Shortly after publication, we were lucky to get some great press in big time media like The Advocate and Pride. But when I naïvely went to read the comments, they were full of nastiness, particularly towards the men. Some said they were "nothing special", others said they were downright ugly, and there were a lot of homophobic comments too. Since then, no comments are ever read by us, and we recommend you to stay away too. Haters gonna hate.

3) Stories are special - The idea to have each guy write a story from his life was present from the beginning, but it was non-mandatory. This means that only four Lviv guys wrote something, and only two of those wrote something substantial. Yet those two stories were such highlights of the issue that since Lviv, all Elska issues have made stories mandatory for every guy. 

4) Be respectful of others, even when you don't agree with them - The greatest disappointment that came from the release of our Ukrainian issue was the backlash of fear and homophobia from some of the guys themselves. As the first ever Elska, nobody knew that the project would reach any level of popularity, so most of the guys were shocked when they found articles written about Elska Lviv, including in local Ukrainian media. Suddenly some of these men who weren't out (or who maybe weren't gay at all), felt outed by Elska. At first I was upset. I hoped that they'd have been proud to have been in Elska, but they were worried about what would happen if family, work colleagues, or neighbours found out. I know that the greatest service a queer person can do for LGBTQdom is to come out, but it's never my intention to force people out. All I can say is that since Elska Lviv, people can now easily google "elska magazine" and see that their participation may not go unnoticed. 

5) Forgive yourself - My other disappointment with Elska Lviv is that the final print product was a bit of a mess. I'd never printed any publication before, I'd never studied graphic design, and I only taught myself to use tools like InDesign or Photoshop. I was embarrassed, so when the first run finally sold out, I felt relieved to never have to look at a copy again. But over time I've learned to forgive myself and to hope that others appreciate that Elska is a handmade product that was never meant to be perfect, and that the imperfect aspects of it are part of its charm. Needless to say, it's a lot less scruffy today, and the new reissue of Elska Lviv has been spruced up a great deal, ready to sit happily alongside the rest of the Elska collection. 

Rediscover Elska Lviv here: bit.ly/elskalviv