Elvis is Alive

Elvis is Alive Dave Carswell

Photographer Dave Carswell spent a day shooting Elvis impersonators in the Philippines. Here’s what he learned.

At his zenith, Elvis Presley was inescapable. The star permeated every level of pop culture, from film to music to advertising, gaining enough notoriety that he simply begun playing himself in Hollywood’s biggest flicks.

Though Elvis himself passed away in August 1977, his likeness has lived on throughout the media he created, and those who follow his teachings. Elvis impersonators are amongst the most dedicated tribute artists in the world, each pouring their utmost energy into their particular version of The King.

Elvis is alive, you see. He’s alive in everyone who dons the outfit, gels their hair, or mumbles a “thankyouverymuch”.

Dave Carswell, an Australian photographer currently living in Tasmania, was privy to a celebration of Elvis while he was based in the Philippines in the mid 2010s. He took a lens to these professional impersonators one day, framing them in black and white while they strutted their stuff in their blue suede shoes.

The photos, as you’ll see, are something else.

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here

Elvis is Alive Dave Carswell

HAPPY: Tell us about the Elvis is Alive series. What were you doing in the Philippines, and how did this come about?

DAVE: I lived in the Philippines for two years in the mid 2010s. My partner took a job in Manila and I was a stay-at-home father to our baby daughter. In my spare time I worked on a number of photographic projects. Some were longform documentation, however this Elvis series came about quite organically and I shot it all late one afternoon. One of my neighbours was a performing artist, actively involved in the local arm of the Elvis appreciation society, and a regular organiser of concerts.

Me and my friends used to admire his quiff-ish hair and Hawaiian shirts from afar until one day he invited me over for a beer. His place was absolutely covered in Elvis memorabilia; multiple life-sized models, knick knacks and souvenirs from Graceland, as well as an array of Elvis jumpsuits that his wife and friend had stitched by hand. We struck up a friendship and I asked him if I could come along and shoot him and his friends at a tribute night.

HAPPY: Are the Philippines special to you?

DAVE: The Philippines is truly a spectacular place that is dear to my heart. Filipino people have hearts of gold and the country is geographically and culturally very diverse. It’s not a very popular opinion outside of the country, but I also love Filipino food.

black and white

HAPPY: What does an Elvis convention look like in that part of the world?

DAVE: Convention is probably a little bit too ambitious of a description for their events. This core group of performers organise two annual concerts to honour Elvis; one on his birthday and another on the day of his passing. It is always held in a rock and roll bar in downtown Manila with an enthusiastic crowd of punters. For the most part the crowd is made up of older generations, however some of the performers are in their 20s and 30s, so they tend to draw in a slightly younger crowd. Usually each of the Elvises takes on an era of his back catalogue so you get a mix of everything from bluesy rock and roll through to the bloated Vegas-era balladry.

HAPPY: What do you think it is about Elvis that inspires people so ferociously?

DAVE: He was probably one of the first true rock and roll stars in a global sense and his music and acting was omnipresent in his peak. He was at the height of his powers during the post-war boom in America and the broadening globalisation was really starting to take hold. In some ways, he was just in the right place at the right time, however I think there is still such romantic nostalgia and yearning for this era of American pop culture today.

HAPPY: What was the experience shooting these impersonators like?

DAVE: It was really easy. Most of these guys practice their stage persona, so it was just a matter of triggering them to think and act like Elvis – they already all look like him. They are all very humble though, and most of them bring no ego with their performing artistry.

Elvis is Alive Dave Carswell

HAPPY: How do you think it would differ if they were out of costume?

DAVE: The thing with these guys is they live and breathe Elvis, so whilst they might only perform three to four times a year, they are still living that rock and roll life. You will see them around at other times with the signature shaggy hair and flared jeans – it’s not something they are entirely switched off from.

HAPPY: Did you choose black and white for a reason?

DAVE: Primarily I shot this in black and white for aesthetic reasons. If you look back at imagery of Elvis, the era was defined by rich and tonal black and white images and I wanted to provide a link between then and now. Secondarily, I shoot mostly with film and the labs in Manila are a bit hit and miss. I had a small home developing system, so with black and white film I was able to have complete control of the process and turn it around really quickly at home.

HAPPY: How do you go about choosing a subject for a conceptual series? Like this, or Dancing In The Shadows?

DAVE: Most of my project work comes through exploration and intuition. I like to shoot a lot of stuff off the cuff and then draw back and look out for recurring themes, to view how work might fit into a broader narrative. The Dancing In The Shadows series grew from my daily walks around my neighbourhood documenting DIY basketball apparatus to an extended series examining public space in the Philippines. This Elvis series was a bit of an outlier in that sense, however I was looking to shoot a portrait series as most of my other work at the time was outdoors/landscape work. I also had/have very limited experience in studio portraiture so I wanted to challenge myself with something a bit different.

Elvis is Alive Dave Carswell

HAPPY: Are there themes that you find consistently crop up in your work?

DAVE: I guess for the past five years, a lot of my focus has been on the interrogation of public space and how this is used by stakeholders to shape behaviour. This stretches from the banality of urban environment right through the contested annexing of public ‘areas’. I have recently made a conscious attempt to study more broadly these themes through the lens of architects, planners, and corporations to get a deeper understanding of the cultural and social impacts of these stakeholders and their decisions.

HAPPY: What’s inspiring you right now?

DAVE: In these uncertain times, it feels strange to talk about inspiration. I had to relocate back to my home state of Tasmania in March due to COVID. It’s been forced reckoning in some ways and I have been shooting a lot. What has come of it is quite introspective themes on isolation, home, and memory. It’s quite different to my past work and perhaps very appropriate for the broader global mood.


This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here.

Interview by Tom Cameron
All images courtesy of Dave Carswell