Wesley Channell, an American photographer, started photography 20 years ago. He finds inspiration in stories, in people, in forms both in nature and man-made and in color. He is greatly influenced by sculpture, and 19th and early 20th century art. He has been awarded many times for his work, especially for his Human Canvas, the Circle and the Box. He has visited Serbia more than 15 times. He loves the beauty of its people, places, landmarks, and its wonderful culture. Two exhibitions have come out of this love, Serbia – Balkan Beauty: From an American’s Perspective and Portraits of Serbia: Hope for the future.
In Serbia, we usually call people like yourself, „artistic souls “. There is your photography, your poetry. When and where has your interest started in these areas of art?
I started writing poetry when I was 16. Not love poetry as people of that age do, but poetry about meaning and life. I suppose writing poetry all my life has been a way to harness and express emotions and touch people.
I started photography when I was 49. I always loved art, went to museums, collected what I could and loved the world of art; however, I had no idea I had any talent. I can hardly draw a stick figure and though I took a class in painting, let’s say my future there would be hopeless. But I saw things and forms and colors and people and expressions and emotions – so what better way than to take photos? Also, since I’m no good in foreign languages, what better way to communicate than through pictures?
How did you come to visit Serbia for the first time and what were your first impressions?
I came to Serbia for the first time in June 2004. I hated it! – it was too hot, no air conditioning, meals that lasted forever – the antithesis of the American way of living. But I was invited back the next year to speak on art and fell in love with the people. After a few visits, I no longer worried about long meals – I could sit at the same table all day seeing my Serbian friends. I learned to relax and give up American expectations and enjoy Serbian hospitality and friendships.
Tell us in a few sentences your story about Serbia and people who live in it.
I think Serbia is greatly misunderstood by the West. They know nothing about it and judge it without understanding. I sought to show through my work a beautiful people and a beautiful country, with great traditions. This is my story, I found an undiscovered people for the West, who we at best ignored and at worst, looked down upon. I wanted to change that narrative and show people, especially Americans, we had much to learn from this people whose history was hundreds of years older than ours.
It is obvious Serbia has invoked various emotions in you. What is it exactly that conquered your heart?
I think it became one of the few places in the world where I could let down my guard and relax. Americans who have accompanied me there say I am a different and changed person from the one they know here. I probably have more friends in Serbia than here. People there always want to spend time with me and sit and talk. And if they don’t show up, I enjoy just sitting and watching the people. I’ve traveled to all parts of Serbia, and been welcomed and treated with great friendliness everywhere. Serbia humbled my American arrogance and made me its own. I love coming there.
Why did you call your first exhibition Serbia – Balkan Beauty: From One American’s Perspective? What’s behind the word “beauty”?
First, what’s behind the word, “American.” I think it’s important for the Serbs to know that an American loves them and appreciates them – and I have no natural ties to Serbia—my DNA is 96% English. Second, I realize that beauty isn’t something that I’m fool enough to define – but I know it when I see it. It could be wonderful landscapes, or the ridges in an old shepherd’s face, or peeling paint or the Drina River and I could go on. We all see beauty differently and I sought to show the beauty as I saw it, not to impose my definition of beauty upon the Serbian people. I sought just to show my perspective.
After many visits to Serbia, you took a special interest in people. How close is the Balkan mentality to you?
It’s not close, but it’s understood. The Balkan peoples have long been subject to other countries and empires in their history. Yet, they proudly held on to their culture and traditions and passed much down.
Their journey in freedom is new and it will take some time to grow. Also, relationships are at the heart of the Balkan peoples – everyone knows everyone or at least someone else who knows them. This is quite different from the American experience. We are a new people who have not lived with freedom for a long time. We are quite individualistic and really don’t do tradition well. Also, we are really a new country in the length of history and could learn a great deal from Balkan people about life and living.
Your project Portraits of Serbia tells a story about us from a different perspective. What was your idea when you created this project?
I’ve visited Serbia over 15 times since 2004 and spent a great deal of time talking with Serbs of all types – poor, rich, political, rural, old, young, etc. Yet, one thing that stuck out to me in all those conversations was no one talked about the future, or if they did so, it was without much hope. This is completely opposite to what we experience in America – everyone talks about the future all the time. So, I wanted to start a conversation about what Serbs thought of the future and themselves and their country. We decided that all interviews with the participants would be done in Serbian by a Serbian, so that the questions and conversation would be Serbian, not influenced by English or Western thought.
How did you choose participants?
Our first criteria for being a participant was that you couldn’t be someone who was famous or often in the news. We hear too much about those people anyway. We wanted Serbs of every background and age group from teenager to old. They were chosen by referral from one friend to the next all across the nation of Serbia. We were especially concerned that we got a wide participation, not just those from the larger cities such as Belgrade. Also, we traveled to France and Germany to get some participants from the large Serbian diaspora.
What are your photography plans for the future? New exhibitions, new projects?
I published my first book in 2020, called the Human Canvas. It deals with some of the artists I’ve been inspired by in my life. I also just completed two other projects – the Circle and the Box. All these are done in my studio here in America. I’ve had a couple of exhibitions of Human Canvas and hope for more, as well as, for the others. I’m sad to say that I don’t have plans for a future Serbian project due to by declined health. I’ve had 14 operations in the last 6 years, as well as numerous hospitalizations. Though I’m able to work, I’m mostly confined to studio work and find it hard to work on location. Yet, we have a saying, “never say never.” Who knows, one day I might have another project for Serbia.
Would you live in Serbia?
Serbia is an amazing place and if I were a young man and could learn languages, I would be tempted to live there. It holds much promise as people discover and look toward the future. However, I’m a bit too old to move and I don’t have many years for my story to keep on going, especially with my declining health, so I shall finish the final chapters of my life here. But in my heart, I’ll always have a special place for Serbia.
Interview by Lidija Ivanovic
The Portraits of Serbia: Hope for the future exhibition will be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina in Novi Sad from March 22 – April 3, 2022.