Even if you don’t know his name, you will probably have seen Réhahn’s photographs. He takes portraits, often in India, Cuba, or Vietnam, of the “hidden smiles” of locals. His work prompted Paris Match to declare that the photographer “captures the souls of his models,” a sentiment echoed by newspapers and magazines around the world, with blogs naming him the “fourth most famous portrait photographer ever” alongside other celebrated portrait photographers like Steve McCurry.
During a busy year for the Normandy-born artist, in which he opened his Precious Heritage Museum Gallery in Hoi An, and the Couleurs D’Asie Gallery in Ho Chi Minh City, we caught up with him in the gallery and museum-rich central Vietnam heritage town which he calls home. He talked us through his new collaborative walking street project with Anantara Hoi An Resort, as well as filling us in on some of the milestones in his journey to Vietnam, and how he is giving back to the communities that he has photographed.
Where did you live and travel before Vietnam?
Around my mid 20s, I discovered that “home” wasn’t a place where I wanted to live. I started to travel for extended periods, beginning as an agent for a half-Vietnamese, half-Senegalese DJ. During that time there weren’t many female DJs. And because I wanted to see the world and I had no money, it proved to be a nice solution that allowed me to travel for free.
Together we found venues that were open to hosting us. We ended up traveling to 11 countries in one year—mainly in Europe and North Africa. We visited places like Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco. Through these experiences, it became clear that the nightlife industry wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle. That’s when I decided to travel independently. I ended up in countries like Thailand, Mexico and Cuba. In Cuba, I met a taxi driver on my first visit who has since become something of a brother to me. I’ve been back to Cuba 13 times. It was there that I became a lifelong cigar aficionado.
After many trips to Cuba, I arrived in Vietnam for the first time in 2007. My initial experience of Vietnam was through a French non-profit organization that I had been supporting for several years. We were in Hoi An visiting two girls that we were sponsoring through the group. We toured through Hanoi, Sapa, Halong Bay, and Hue, and we finished our trip in Hoi An. At the time, my partner and I weren’t fluent in Vietnamese or English so we had to spend our days with a translator who happened to be a neighborhood businesswoman.
Since then, that same translator has become our business partner—helping us navigate Vietnam’s backroads. After our first trip, we also made it a point to come back to Hoi An on each subsequent visit. We’ve since adopted the two girls that we previously sponsored and we all live together in Hoi An now. One daughter is 23, the younger one is 17.
Tell us how you got started in photography.
I got my start in South America while traveling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Before taking this trip, I was working with a designer at a printing company in Paris. He was the first to encourage me to buy a camera. At first, I just went along with him and started taking photos with my Canon 50D. However, it never excited me to take photos in France. Traveling to other countries made me want to pursue photography more seriously. It combines both of my primary interests.
How did you “discover” your own style?
On my first visit to Vietnam 10 years ago, I didn’t take any landscape photos during my trip—just portraits, especially in Sapa. Many of those were of the Hmong people as they seemed to be highly representative of the region. I took particular interest in their attire and the textiles used to make it. Sapa is one of the few places in Vietnam where you can still see authentic culture and natural landscapes. When I came back a second time with a friend in 2011, it had changed dramatically. I remember seeing locals wearing Nike trainers. On the same trip, we also went south to Dalat and noticed a change in customs there are well. From that point on, it became a hobby to keep going back to learn as much as possible about each region.
I’m not an ethnologist, anthropologist or specialist in any sort of field. I’m just a photographer interested in my subjects. For almost the entire last ten years, I’ve been focusing on ethnic minorities in Vietnam. I’m keen to understand what influences their cultural customs. I’m not here to judge what people are doing; I’m simply a photojournalist and a guest in a foreign country. My job, I feel, is to showcase the lifestyles and traditions of the people that I’m shooting.
Your work has drummed up a large audience. What are some projects you’ve kick-started to give back to the communities you’ve photographed?
I invest my time and energy toward building strong relationships with the people I meet, hence my Giving Back Project. If I sell a copy of an iconic photo, a percentage of the profits will go back to the family or person in the shot. Those proceeds will go towards supporting school fees or purchasing something like a bicycle. It’s better to deliver something of value, rather than money, in case of financial mismanagement. For the girl with the blue eyes and the elephant photo, our team have given back cows as a thank you. With the proceeds from the sale of my photographs, we’ve also been able to keep the museum free. There are two promises I make to them—one, to keep the museum free, and two, that I’ll eventually come back to their hometown to visit them again.
How do you introduce yourself when you’re on the road? What is your response when people ask about about what you do?
I introduce myself as a French photographer. When people ask why I’m taking photos, I explain that our team manages a collection to preserve the culture of ethnic minority groups. But not everyone understands how the free-admission museum works. Many still ask why we’re interested in documenting old traditions and customs.
What was the turning point in your photography career?
The turning point occurred when I published my first book—”Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts.” In Vietnam there aren’t too many publishers. So I decided to publish the book independently, handling everything from the layout and composition to the printing. But to commit to this project, I had to be certain that I could sell it. The project alone cost US $20,000 upfront.
When it first rolled out, it caught the attention of newspapers and TV shows. The book has made 70 appearances on Vietnamese television alone. It’s been showcased across the world in different countries, making it as far as my home country of France, and even on a weekend TV show in Brazil that has an audience of 30 million people every Sunday.
What are some of your current projects?
Phan Boi Chau, a street that includes the Precious Heritage Museum, is home to many of Hoi An’s galleries that feature original artwork. This street also features architecture which is different from that found in the Old Town. There are many galleries in town where the sales people will falsely pretend to be the artist. In many cases, the original artist doesn’t know that he or she even has photos in some of these galleries. Fortunately, Anantara Hoi An Resort has given us this space to promote these original artists.
What’s the most memorable experience during your travels?
The majority of my experiences abroad have been positive. But, the one that stands out was a serious motorbike accident. I was in search of some shots of the Brau ethnic group. They are the second smallest ethnic minority in Vietnam with just 397 people. There’s no one in Vietnam today that still has the expertise to make their traditional attire. So we decided to cross the border into Laos to find members of this group that were still keeping their traditions alive. Unlike Vietnam, Laos has a fairly sizeable Brau community.
As we made our way across the border my bike’s tire exploded. I lost control and woke up in a hospital. The group that we were searching for found us and put us on a truck to a nearby hospital to stitch me up. I was traveling on the same bike with my friend, business partner and translator. She was in a coma for three days.
If you had to move to another country, where would you go?
Cuba. I would love to move there to be with my friends. I’d also love to do a photography series about tobacco and cigar culture in Cuba. I previously hosted an exhibition about Vietnam in Cuba at the Asian House in Havana. Two of my photos are still in that collection. I’ll probably wait to move to Cuba at least until the internet connection there improves—or most likely when I’m retired.
What’s in your gear bag? What’s your go-to lense?
The 85mm lense on the Canon 1.2L. When I travel, I rarely take photos of the landscape. I’ll usually just smoke a cigar and enjoy the view instead. While the 1.2L is hard to use, it’s my personal favorite for capturing portrait photography. If I’m carrying my full bag, I’ll also have my 70-200mm long lense. It’s best for capturing photos from afar—people on the river or on a boat. Then there’s the 16-35mm wide-angle lense I use if I do decide to take landscape photos.
If Réhahn is not a French name, where does it come from?
My father worked in Paris for a long time and one of his colleagues was named Réhahn. He was a refugee from Pakistan and couldn’t speak French when he first arrived. Five years later, he became a successful businessman. He also spoke a few other languages and integrated quickly into life in France. My father had a lot of respect for him, which is why he gave me the same name.