I caught up with Tom Lesniara to talk about the book.
Why did you decide to write the book?
When I moved over from Poland, I knew that I wanted to write a book in English one day, but I didn’t have any particular plan for it. The whole thing happened naturally – I’d been seeing things that bothered me.
Talking to newly-met British friends about the cultural shock was pointless – they grew up here and didn’t see anything weird in what bothered me. Things like Grindr being filled with amateur escorts, having to pay for everything, everywhere, people wearing handbags worth five grand, young people throwing up at illegal raves in Zone 5, simply because clubs are too boring.
At the same time, I simply couldn’t talk to my parents or my sister about this kind of stuff. I still don’t know how to tell them about the book. I guess the book was my outlet, and a coping mechanism.
What does the title, Cheap Eastern European Boys, mean to you?
Poland is an old country, but in its current shape and form it’s been around only since 1989 – the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. That’s why we’re still quite ‘poor’ compared to other economies. Rebuilding the entire country isn’t easy, I guess. Not like I care or that I’m trying to justify Poland or anything, but we’ve always been looking at The West with jealousy – the clothes, cars, and holidays they have. I think this is why young people started emigrating. We wanted that too. We wanted Tenerife, we wanted Canada Goose, Gucci belts, and Mercedes cars on finance.
Cheap Eastern European Boys is a self-shaming term – maybe you bought this and that, mate, but you’re still cheap as fuck because you’re doing everything you can to show everyone back home how amazing your life has become. I behave this way too, very often.
When you look back at this period of your life, how did the reality of life in London compare with what you expected when you decided to move here?
Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe how shocked I was. We learn English in Poland from the age of six until we graduate high school aged 19. There’s a lot of ‘London’ in our school books, but it’s a city of white townhouses and little boutique coffee shops. We’re being told that London is one big Kensington and Chelsea, which is so ridiculous.
Then you arrive, and realise that all you can afford is a 500 quid room in Whitechapel. Everyone is forced to use the tube – that feels like a microwave – and homeless people are, unfortunately, around every corner.
Much of your story is an attempt to escape from your Polish identity. Is that something that you’re still struggling with?
Yes, I struggle with that a lot. I spent 18 years of my life being bullied for who I am, forced to go to church a few times a week to apologise for my sins – it’s all very dark. The beginning of my book shows the ridiculousness of it.
I’m gay. I want to be friends with people of all religions, mindsets, and backgrounds, and I believe in a world with no barriers.
I often find myself saying wrong things, joking the wrong way about races or social groups – not because I’m an asshole, but because I was raised in that country. I also catch myself for a moment after and I’m like – I’m a good person. Why on Earth did I say that?
What does your story tell us about the challenges of making a new life for yourself in London?
Focus on your goal. Have a plan. Don’t go to Selfridges until you’re secure in your job and flat.
What do you hope that people feel when reading this book?
There are millions of people around the globe that struggle with different things and feel like they need to go to London and start again. Everyone has their own story. Please don’t try to judge them. Don’t be so sure you understand why they came over. You most likely don’t.
We want to hear your opinion
Photography that embraces naked men
“Stop comparing ourselves to strangers on the internet…”
I caught up with photographer Anthony Patrick Manieri to talk about his ongoing series of work known as Arrested Movement.
Why do you think this project has captured the imagination of gay men around the world?
Because we’re all the same really, except we don’t all look alike. We usually just see what society deems to be the ‘perfect’ body types, flashed across TV and social media all the time.
This project encompasses a wide variety of men that are photographed equally and beautifully. I feel that the variety of men and body shapes being highlighted are recognisable to most men. We need to see diversity represented more in the media. That, and also the idea of male body positivity is refreshing in a world where the media seems to only push female body positivity. In this day and age, where depression and anxiety are extremely commonplace, it’s nice to know that we’re not alone in the struggle.
Why are men so keen to be photographed by you for this project?
Because we all want to fit in. We all want to be accepted, and here is a photographic series celebrating all men, all body types, and showcasing them artistically. I think men look at this and can relate and identify with some of the participating models, because they see themselves in the photos.
Most of the men you’ve photographed for this project appear to be first-time models, most likely being professionally photographed naked for the first time. Was that experience confronting for many of your models?
From what I’ve seen, and from what some of my assistants mentioned to me, for most of the men that participate there’s a definite shift in their overall energy levels from when they first arrive at the studio to when they’re done. One assistant asked me — “What is going on in the studio? Because when they arrive they’re quite scared, some even shake with nerves, but when they leave they glow and have this sense of empowerment.”
I make sure that the studio is private and a safe space for them to try and feel as comfortable as possible. I brief them, and coach them with suggestions of possible body movement. I also stop periodically to show the gentlemen their progression so far in the shoot.
Most men, after seeing themselves on the screen during the shoot, are delightfully impressed by how they look. They look at themselves in a positive light artistically, and not what they usually expect to see. I talk to them about how their hands are positioned, their facial expressions, pointing of their feet, and the overall lines of their bodies in the frame.
When you’re not quite happy with your body, putting yourself out there is brave. I watch some men almost lose themselves in the moment and in the music. I’m grateful that I get to witness such a personal moment of self-evolution. For others, they’re determined to take an amazing photo, so they push themselves so that their final image is strong and unique.
Should everyone tackle a naked photo shoot at some point in their lives?
I don’t know if that’s the answer. What people should do is take time to appreciate and accept themselves, to put themselves first. Fill their own cups before extinguishing their energy with others. Uniqueness is special. It’s okay to look different on the outside, because we’re all the same on the inside.
How is the project continuing to evolve?
I’m currently working on the design of the book — I’ll be releasing a Kickstarter page this Fall. I’m also looking at gallery spaces to have the first of many shows.
Are you still actively shooting guys for this project?
I’m still actively photographing men. If it were up to me, I’d be in a different city every weekend photographing.
Since I’m funding this myself, I need to take breaks between cities. Travelling, studio costs, and hotels add up quickly. There are a few cities in the US, Canada, and Mexico that I’d like to do before heading back to Europe. Beyond that, there’s talk of Australia, and possibly some cities in South America for 2019.
How can we help each other feel better about our bodies?
I think we really need to be kind to ourselves, and each other — daily. Judgement and self-judgement is such a human flaw, it’s like a vibrational plague. We should be detaching ourselves from our smart-phones and social media regularly. Yoga and meditation are great ways to feel centred and grounded, to be in tune with our higher self. Eating right always makes for a happier body and mind. We need to encourage and validate each other to be the best we can be.
What do the images that you’ve captured through this project tell us about gay men and their relationship with their bodies?
Gay culture is meant to be inclusive, and we celebrate that inclusiveness. Though within the gay community, there’s such a divide between men. We’re labelled and put in categories, therefore creating almost a hierarchy of what’s acceptable.
Body-image and self-esteem start in your own mind, not on Instagram. We need to literally stop comparing ourselves to strangers on the internet. We need to make mental health a priority in the gay community.
I hope that when people see this project, they know their worth, they know that they’re beautiful, and that it’s okay to be different.
Meet the participants
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