Matej Peljhan: Photographer philosopher
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This week, our special attention goes to an amazing man and great photographer Matej Peljhan who deserves respect and admiration. His work excels on many levels. Matej had a bad injure at the age of 10 who influenced the rest of his life. He studied clinical psychology and dedicated his career to children with special needs. He is also the co-founder of the Institute for Photo therapy of Slovenia.
Tell us about yourself, your hobbies and other jobs, Matej.
I am interested in different activities, including sports and arts. One of my hobbies, among others, is triathlon. I finished the “Ironman” triathlon twice. This competition is considered to be the toughest physical one-day test in the world, in which the competitors have to swim 3,8 km, complete a 180 km bike course and run the classic Marathon in the length of 42,2 km.
7 years ago I started dealing with photography seriously. Until now I have exhibited my works in 15 single exhibitions. I have received more than 100 awards for my works. I published my work in monograph titled Fotografije/Photographies (2012) and I am the co-author of the book “Za-govor podob” - philosophy of photographic gaze (2011).
I also engage in films. I wrote a screenplay and I was the director of the short film which was awarded the special achievements award at the national film festival.
Due to my personal and professional ambitions I strive to bring photography as close as possible to the people with special needs. I co-founded “The Institute of photographic therapy” where we offer workshops, educate others in the field of the photographic therapy and publish professional articles. I am editor and co-author of a book entitled "Photo therapy – From Concepts to Practice", which was translated and published also in English.
You are active in many fields. Tell us something more about that.
Does your profession somehow influence your photography?
My education and my profession are of course part of my identity, part of my personality. Therefore it’s normal that they influence my photographic work. As a psychologist I gained some knowledge about human psyche, I know a bit about cognition, feelings and motivation, I am familiar with theories of personality, with development principles, with influence of the environment etc. In my psychotherapeutic work I have upgraded this knowledge with experiences and life stories that people share with me. All this shapes me as a person, it represents a good starting point and maybe even advantage for work in some photographic genres, and at the same time it can hide many traps for me as a photographer. As a psychologist I wish to maintain originality and honesty in my life and I don’t want to look at every aspect of life only through glasses of psychologist. And I believe that the same should apply to a photographer, I believe that it’s important for a photographer to be able to just go with the flow during his work instead of being analytical all the time. I am trying to find the right balance between analytical and intuitive approach all the time. I try to use my psychological knowledge as much as I can when making directed photos, where I try to connect psychological concepts with the scenario, gadgets and models. On the other hand, when making photos from other genres, for instance street photo, I prefer to just go with the flow in leave it to “higher forces”, as I say.
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography? What first attracted you to photography?
When 7 years ago I finally found the courage and bought my first DSLR, I felt like I found a completely new world. I mastered the technical aspect of photography, I studied composition and most of all I took a lot of photos and enjoyed doing it enormously. After a while I got additional encouragement from others who liked what I did. I was surprised that they were able to “read” ideas and stories that I tried to express.
Describe your overall photographic vision.
I wish for my photos touch whoever observes them emotionally and intellectually. As a photographer, I don't like clichés. Exaggerated repeating of the same motifs, shown in the same way all the time, kills creativity. I also dislike art that seems unique and original on the outside, but is empty on the inside and is incomprehensible.
In my opinion a photo is good when it’s convincing with its story. This may appear easily understandable to its viewer at first glance while on the other hand it invites the viewer to look at it over and over again and reveals new aspects, new questions and new thoughts about it.
Usage of contrasts is absolutely my favourite way to express myself. I use it to enhance visual and contextual aspects of a photo. Contrast actually means minimalization of information and it also means some exaggeration with which I lead the viewer to which part of the photo he should focus on the most. In everyday reality we are rarely exposed to extreme situations and extreme emotions, because life isn’t really black and white but rather grey. Despite of that it’s important that we sometimes find a way out of average greyness and with help of some radical standpoints find what our true values are. My expressive motto is minimalism, which means that I am trying to show as much as I can with as little as I can. If some specific part of the photo doesn’t seem important, I rather don’t show it or just put it out of focus. For example, colours are just one of the artistic element for me. I see all photos black and white at first and start to add colour later if I feel the need for it. The moment when I feel the need for colours can vary from photo to photo. Sometimes colours can bring some specific emotional charge, sometimes they emphasize contrasts or contribute to the authentic look.
It’s noticeable that humour and irony are often presented in my photos, and I use them when I want to additionally draw attention of the viewer and emphasize the mood and the story.
Who are your favourite photographers and more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
Why are you so drawn by Conceptual and Creative Edit photography?
What is more important to you, the mood,/story behind your images or the technical perfection?
Do you prepare carefully the locations where you are intending to photograph?
What gear do you use (camera, lenses, bag)?
What software do you use to process your images?
What is your most important advice to a beginner in Conceptual and Creative Edit photography and how do you get started?
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
In the photographic field I wish to continue with promotion of photography as suitable activity for people with special needs. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the pride in the eyes of a handicapped person, who is deprived in so many areas, when he makes a good photo. I have a wish that photo therapy would become an established practice in the health and education system.
Describe your favourite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you?
In spite of the physical handicap, Luka was an exceptionally creative boy. Ideas kept on boiling from his rich world of imagination, without acknowledging any limits. On paper, he drew different motives, on his computer, he designed logotypes, wrote texts, recorded hip hop music, edited videos… He was acquainted with his disease and knew what it meant for him and for his future. However, he did not talk about it a lot.
Once, in one of our conversations, he expressed a wish to see himself in the photographs- walking, swimming, dancing and doing several other things he was unable to do in life.
I wasn’t expecting that. I was afraid that when he saw himself in such pictures, he wouldn’t be happy, because he would be cruelly confronted with his condition and feel depressed. When talking to him I was very cautious and full of doubts, but then these doubts disappeared one after another. The imaginary world doesn’t mean an escape from the reality, it is a part of our reality. If we find an appropriate way to enter and exit this imaginary world, it can become a never-ending source of inspiration for our creativity.
The next question I needed to answer was- how do I do it? I didn’t want to use Photoshop. I wanted a simple and humorous approach that isn’t pathetic. I thought and I thought about how to solve this problem. I took my camera, climbed three meters high and looked down. As always, problems look different when viewed from a new perspective.
Luka was very happy when he saw the photos of himself, but then I was thinking that a photographic series would, with a proper presentation, interest a wider circle of people. If Luka’s story could touch me so much, it could perhaps reach other people, as well.
I mentioned to him the possibility of showing the photographic series to someone else, and he was immediately up for it. I talked to his parents and explained to them what this type of presentation meant and what it can bring along. They agreed instantly, as well.
Just a few days after I posted the photos on my website, up to then viewed around ten times a day only, something unimaginable happened. It was as if a mighty avalanche had fallen. The photographic content became viral and people started sharing it on the internet with no end to it. Numerous accomplished TV, print and internet media wrote about it and reported about it. On the web portal BuzzFeed, these photographs were even placed on the list of 35 most touching photographs of all times. It was possible to read a ton of positive comments, the number of views increased daily and reached millions. Luka became a true star. He got interview requests from everywhere and got invited to many places in the world. Every day, a lot of e-mails of support and personal stories of different people got to him, describing their experience and expressing their feelings.
It was obvious that the story honestly touched many people. Perhaps it was because Luka’s story is depicted positively and wittily despite his difficult life circumstances. Perhaps it was because the photographs address us all so non-violently that we think about different perspectives and true values in our own lives. That we realize we do not live in a single dimension, the dimension of banality, superficiality and materiality. And that we see how the shackles that bind us and do not let us breathe can only be overcome by our own activity and creativity. Every single one of us holds his or her own pen and paper, therefore he or she has all the possibilities to draw and create a balloon to lift him or her above the clouds.
Is there anything else you wish to add and what do you think about 1X as a home base for your work?
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