Matej Peljhan


Matej Peljhan was born in 1967 and spent his entire childhood in a small village Col above the Vipava Valley, Slovenia.

At the age of 10, while playing with his friends, he experienced a severe accident with some explosive devices, scattered around during the World War II. He suffered numerous injuries, the most severe being the loss of his right arm and an eye. He finished elementary school in his home town and some years later the secondary school in Idrija; during all this period undergoing painful medical treatment and rehabilitation.

He studied psychology at the University of Ljubljana and soon after decided to proceed with his studies in the field of clinical psychology, which helps him a lot in his daily work with children with special needs. He lives in Ljubljana with his wife and three children.

He has been a photographer since 2009. He takes photos in an unusual way – because he can only manage a camera with his left hand, the camera needs to be turned upside down.

He holds the tittle master of photography, which is the highest title you can obtain in Slovene photography. He has presented his work at 18 independent exhibitions in Slovenia and abroad, and has received over a hundred prizes. Two of his works are included in the photographic collection of the Museum and galleries of the city of Ljubljana.

He published his work in monograph titled Fotografije/Photographies (2012) and he is the co-author of the book Za-govor podob - philosophy of photographic gaze (2011). His photos, interviews and features about him have been published and presented in numerous media in Slovenia and across the world (Delo, Dnevnik, Digitalna kamera, 7 Dni, RTV SLO, POP TV, Reader's Digest, Digital Photography, Schwartzweiss, Nikon Pro Magazine, 1x Magazine, Huffington Post, BBC, Daily Mail, Globo, Stern, El Diario Sur, Pro Sieben, Nippon TV, Buzzfeed, Mashable, Petapixel, Bored Panda and others).

His biggest success was the 2013 series called The Little Prince, which went viral. The photos have been pronounced as some of the most touching photos ever taken. The following year he was as screenwriter and director for the short film with the same tittle and received the award Vesna at the main national film festival.

Due to his personal and professional ambitions he strives to bring photography as close as possible to the people with special needs. He has cofounded The Institute of photographic therapy where he offers workshops, educates others in the field of the photographic therapy and publishes professional articles. In 2015 he was the editor of the book called Phototherapy – from Concepts to Practices, which was published in English as well.



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A Finnish architect and an art theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa states in his work The Thinking Hand that the artwork is not a symbol, which represents or indirectly depicts something that exists outside itself, but an image-object that is positioned directly into our own existence. This certainly applies to the creations of Matej Peljhan, especially to the series of photographs The Little Prince and to the documentary with the same title. They were devised by a handicapped artist on the initiative of imaginary illustrations of a handicapped boy named Luke. These intensely address both our metaphysical fear of obstruction and the sensation of imagination as the space of freedom – the ability of unimpeded life.

We can experience intense symbolic messages in Matej Peljhan's photos. The artist achieves that with the interplay of contrasts: between light and shadow, between clean lines of architectural ambiences and organic shapes of living beings inserted into space, between big and small, between a steady rhythm and an entity that breaks this rhythm, between real life and the infamy of advertising messages... It seems sometimes as though silence and tranquillity would stem from his works, whilst irony and concealed humour at others. In the formal art manner, Peljhan reveals an abundance of artistic knowledge and personal sensibility. This is manifested in his exceptional grasp of the compositional construction, design, and space. In 2013, he received a remarkable response from the world public with regard to his series of photographs The Little Prince. This is a story about Luke, a boy with muscular dystrophy, which affects us all with its profound message. The story is simultaneously a message to everyone that the imaginary realm is something completely ordinary, even useful. In the last photograph, Luke returns to the wheelchair, while an empty piece of paper and some pencils are waiting for him next to it, which again offers a promising escape into the imagination. Many media companies have reported about the photographic opus The Little Prince, the number of internet visits reached millions, and several web portals placed the series into the selection of most-moving photographs in history. As a screenwriter and a director, he filmed the story of a boy with muscular dystrophy in the form of a short animated documentary and was in 2015 awarded with Vesna for special achievements at the 18th Festival of Slovenian Film. Matej Peljhan’s photos overwhelm us with artistic purity and precise perfection of particular compositions. We are touched by the author’s noble humanity and the spiritual experience, which arouses the sensation that what is expressed, is timeless and eternal.

Matej Peljhan managed to put his name on the international cultural map in mere 6 years with his intensive professional photographic activity. His photographic series about different perspectives The Little Prince experienced an unbelievably vast international response after being posted online, which came as a great surprise to him as well. This photographic assemblage is a profound human proclamation that warns about our vulnerability, whilst it is ingrained with a fierce hope that everything can be changed for the better. The photographer has identified with the "childish philosophy" of The Little Prince so much that he reached the necessary depth of his own confession, still preserving his bright perspective of the world and people who find themselves in seemingly desperate situations. The Little Prince addresses our conscience when he says that we must never give up, and Matej Peljhan placed this noble thought in the very centre of his photographic world. How else are we to understand the fact that with his perseverance and extraordinary inner strength, with his defiance, he realised his youthful dream – to become a photographer. He had to overcome an almost insurmountable obstacle that marked him, when he injured himself with an army bomb in a game at the age of 10. He lost his right arm and an eye. How many problems had to be conquered when he realised that there were no left-handed cameras; he was resourceful, turned the device upside down and started handling it with his left.
His professional therapeutic activity was at one moment substituted by artistic ambitions. In the simplest, most comprehensible way, he started expressing themes that affect us deeply, since we may experience the world of handicapped people through them. Peljhan is presenting it via photographic media to the broader audience in a respectful manner. He is trying to convince us that it is possible to find beauty and unique perfection even in handicapped human bodies. He conducts one of the most compelling such searches with a stunning array of self-portraits. With these, the world opens to The Little Prince, who says that the essential is invisible to the eye and whoever desires to see the truth, must do it with the heart.
Matej Peljhan states that in spite of everything bad that he experienced and endured, he has preserved a positive view of life. He retains the Slovene Littoral sense of humour and irony; mainly he does not wish to shock people with his expressive photography, but, on the contrary, move them. As his artistic mission, he feels the urge to confront "normal people" in his convincing photographic way with the everyday life of people with genetic defects or those whom fate trifled with in the cruellest way. The world that Peljhan experiences in his professional practice is set before us without reservations, openly, and above all, honestly. He succeeds because of the clear and unambiguous address of his photographic works, which remains real, without excessive emotions. The Little Prince prompts him again that not everything is as it seems at first glance, even adding: "We must let imagination to surprise us."
Matej Peljhan is a photographer of stirring narratives, which are unquestionably founded on reality and teach us that we must be equally sincere to both ourselves and others. What does not stem from the heart is far from the truth. What encourages him is the thought that through his photographic works he is producing a valuable communication between people, that he is revealing sights into the world removed from the everyday view and is difficult to enter. He does not desire to provoke mercy in the viewer with these poignant themes, but admiration and acceptance of the difference of the handicapped. Peljhan's main wish is to be understood by the common people. For he derives from them in the home environment and wants to keep a tight contact. That is why he is plain and straightforward in speaking, and even the most delicate theme cannot supress his creative enthusiasm. With it, he unveils the genuine reality, which should console the portrayed and even us, the spectators.

The title of this essay is a transformation of philosophical expression that can be found in numerous philosophical debates. Its version, for example, is repetition and difference. The title is therefore constructed in this way because the author wants to come close to the artistic content of which he would like to say something hereinafter.
Photos by Matej Peljhan, collected under the collective name Metamorphoses or Transformations, are in fact more than the title suggests. That's why they need the philosophical comment that follows.
Photos are showing well known scenes from history, which is not only the history of art, but the protagonists are replaced. The viewer immediately gets a tip on the ideas that are embedded in the scenes that he once saw, but at the same time it becomes clear to him that there is in each photo or on the particular scene something that he had never seen before.
We are talking about the beginning, which is not something trivial, but it is creative. That's why it is good to think again about how a human being can do anything new, why he makes something new and what are the effects of such creative action.
This is a serious endeavor, and it is not simply a routine exercise in the processing of images, a venture which is possible, because a human being has at his disposal three different options how to start something in life, how to change something, how to do something new. And we're not talking only about the artists, creative people who can create a new one, but we're talking about every single human being.
Photos made by Matej are also important because of this; on his photos we can see people that otherwise we see very rarely.
This recognition alone is already a good introduction to thinking, why has the photographer involved into the scenes protagonists who are representing handicap, although this does not mean that they are the only ones with a disability and that other people have nothing in common with the handicap. The essence is exactly in these tiny differences in ideas, which have made a series of photographs so extraordinary, as it comes from something universal, which is also so impressively depicted by the photographer.
So how do you start something, how do you start something new?
The issue is crucial for everyone and for every photographer as well. He always does something. It is not true that he merely passively flips and mimics reality in order to do nice photos that other people can admire. Photography is by nature a creation of something new and it is beyond the simple admiration or determination how good (or bad) photos are.
The first option. We give something a name. We give a name to something which is still without a name. And we can't start without language, without ideas, without words, which is probably uncontroversial.
The second option. It is associated with human thinking about God's desire. People were in all times asking themselves: Why would God as perfection create something that is obviously not perfect? The radical dimension of this question is that it also has a good answer. The fundamental experience of human being is an experience of something which is not himself. A man cannot exist and stand by himself, of his own accord; he necessarily needs another human being. Even God is not complete without the experience of negativity. We can thus start with zero and create new thinking, new opportunities for thinking.
The third option. If there is something available for us, we can transfer it into new multiplicity and thus create something new.
At the very beginning we therefore always make a difference. Creative action means creating a difference. The man, who does not create difference, is clearly not creative.
In today's digitally created world, this recognition plays a very important role. Namely, with a simple and pure difference we can create any digital image we want.
The images are certainly important. Matej's images of people with disabilities, people who find themselves in the old scenes, open up a new perspective in which we can think in a new way, not only on the nature of the handicap, but rather on the nature of ourselves, of our identities and existences.
We are not talking about classical determination of human identity or existence as final; quite the opposite.
We are talking about new visions, about new ideas of infinity and about human desire to infinity as well.
Matej so proceeds with thinking, with photographic thinking about the nature of human ontology. The pure difference, with which he deals, is namely one of the names for the handicap. Individuals with disabilities are not disabled, injured people, sick or otherwise affected people who lack something that other people possess. Far from it.
Handicap marks, on the body and soul of the people, the difference that is creative, but also directly intertwined with the human experience of emptiness, pure nothingness. Everyone recognized in the Matej's series of photos is marked with a handicap, but because of that fact he or she is nothing less than other human beings. She is immersed in the world by exploring it, as if she wants to say to us that the essence of existence is a power to exist and not the possible image of perfection by which today's consumers are obsessed.
Precisely this recognition is the focus of Matej's series Metamorphoses. The power of existence can be minimal or maximal as Alain Badiou would put it. It does not depend on the alleged human identity, because the opposite is true (identity is dependent on it), so there are no people with strong character, and there are people with a great power of existence.
Its basic condition is awareness of the world and that is the reason why on the Matej's photos each of the protagonists either explores or directly shows what it means to have the power of existence, what it means to wear it on the shoulders, what it means to be aware of it.
The repetition of this operation is not an easy job. It is a very hard job. The photographer is trying to do the job that was previously done by the painter. And he is not doing this, because one morning he had nothing better to do, but it is undertaken after careful consideration, after having processed the idea.
Matej succeeded in his repetition. He did it because he was creative; each repetition is not creative. In particular, it is important what is perhaps the key problem of the modern capitalist world: what is new has no price. The same can be said for the man's relationship to God, which cannot have a price and it cannot be something final.
Matej's photo series is derived from the human yearning for the infinite, for the creativity within the infinite, which knows no divisions on disabled and non-disabled people, rich and poor, the important and the unimportant. His venture is worthy of repetition because in the world of capitalism everything has a price, everything is determinable and finite. Such is the impression that is constantly growing while the protagonists of Matej's series stand out from such finite world and open themselves up to an infinite desire, to infinity itself, to desire for infinity which can have no price, as Badiou would say.
Maybe at the end of this short record we also need to say this. Openness to the infinite is not negotiable and Matej's heroes are inscribed in the tradition of those people who simply won't let you buy them and as such they represent the highest values of all human beings.
Anyone who is incorruptible is looking for something that has no price, and that is the attitude that is already itself outside of the capitalist world in which people are living under the impression that everything has a price and that it is possible to buy everything, including people.
Matej is not making photos to eternalize himself; he is making photos, which by their nature open perspectives, such as solidarity, equality, and mutual respect. His photos are finite, of course, but in them it is possible to identify the search for infinity. After all, only such a tendency can vary the finite world in which capitalistic logic that everything has a price and that everything is finite, prevails.

Matej Peljhan's series Relations might be more a parable than a story in images, meaning a short narrative-parable including a moral: it is not coincidental that the word is derived from the Greek verb paraballein, which means to put something side by side, to confront. In accordance with the diptychal structure, the author's photographs flow one by one, in which the marionette establishes a firm relationship with other subjects that are presented as shadows. The research on interpersonal relations provides a plethora of perceptions: about the innate need for socialising, about what and how do relationships affect, about the disputes and psychological imbalances that interfere with relationships. Yet, the author pervades further until he offers us the possible solutions, which he finds in the understanding of others and self, and in mutual aid. Since this is occurring with all connections, Peljhan introduces roles that are never entirely definite, but are gliding and constantly changing. The marionette resembles Pinocchio, the double-nature character, chiselled from wood, only later turning human. It is the path of formation and conscious approach, of a proper initiation journey, in which he is faced with numerous trials, as is typical for all heroes of the classical tradition. In the concise dialogue between frames, hands are the shadows that hang above the marionette, tightening the threads, managing the motions and blockages, descents and flights. However, these are the hands that seek contact, forms of dialogue, conflict resolutions. And look! In the last image the diptych merges with the unit, the shadows gain prurience when Pinocchio becomes a living being. Together, hand in hand, they are finally free.

I am proud and honoured to have been given an opportunity to say something about the work of Matej Peljhan, photographer – artist and a person with whom I share respectable friendship. To share moments with him makes you feel pure joy of existing and being amazed at the endless Colourfulness of life; talking to him is like standing under magical fireworks of verbal sparks and ideas, which immerse from his ever productive thoughts.
Even without knowing him I would recognize him through the stories of his images. I would recognize and feel him as a human and artist, liberated from all obstacles of mind and communication. He is a thoughtful seeker of fabula prima and a romantically enthusiastic perfectionist who prefers to capture images with his heart, not only with his camera. This is why we feel the images sprung from Matej’s depths of the heart as extensions of his thoughts.
The images of his world are not and do not wish to be loud judges. Instead they prefer to be silent, peaceful witnesses of the moment. These images are given birth to start existing for eternity with the precision of an architect. Sometimes they prefer to be in colour, sometimes in black and white, but don’t wish to be too exact – they are like that to make the story stand out.
When I taste the best selection that the artist offers, it is my pleasure to declare that every image missing from this collection deserves to be felt with the eyes and the heart – each is a small fragment, a tiny piece of a large and never completed mosaic.
I am touched by these images, for which an expert would say that they are an example of duality between Outer and Inner human subjectivity. They are a spring of composition harmony and three dimensional photo story telling experience. I would like to conclude in a simple manner: If the art is a mountain which many different climbers - artists wish to conquer, then there is already Matej’s route and Peljhan’s trail.