Réhahn: Photographer turned Curator for Vietnam Minority Museum
Indigo Images and Minority Tribes
Réhahn isn’t here yet but his work precedes him.
The photographer’s Saigon gallery is located at the top of the same narrow staircase that leads to the indie-cool and well-frequented l’Usine café. Just beyond the doorway, giving us a glimpse of l’Usine’s cakes du jour and shiny pro coffee gear, is the gallery aesthetically packed with row after row of Réhahn’s photographs of ethnic minorities and jewel-toned landscapes of Sapa and other wild areas in Vietnam.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Réhahn, I guarantee you’ve seen his work before. His style, a combination of fine-art portraits and documentary, have made him a name to know in the photography world. He has been featured in more than 500 articles and interviews and his biography reads like a who’s who of the international press: National Geographic, BBC, Condé Nast Traveler, Forbes and Paris Match amongst others.
Entering his Couleurs d’Asie gallery feels like a step into an intimate space, each of the framed subjects communicating in unison, demanding a tête-à-tête with the viewer.
From the backdrop of a stark white wall, An Phuoc, a young girl with unexpectedly blue eyes, stares out at us. From another wall, Madame Xong, one of Réhahn’s most legendary subjects, covers her mouth with her hand, blunt fingernails dyed a hennah brown. Her eyes, that we can’t avoid staring into, are surrounded by a series of interminable lines each one fanning out and revealing the smile that her hand has concealed.
This photograph is part of a series in which dozens of subjects playfully obscure their mouths behind their hands. Réhahn calls these portraits ‘Hidden Smiles’ and they portray a sort of accidental and utterly ageless beauty.
Other lesser known photographs show work-worn hands pigmented with dye, fingertips tinted an unsettling indigo blue. Or an old Cuban woman, head topped with a red flower wreath, puffing on a cigar and staring into the camera as if daring the viewer to cross her (rehahnphotographer.com/portfolio/portraits-cuba).
It has been said that when Réhahn photographs the ethnic minorities of Vietnam, he manages to capture the soul of his subjects through his camera, and standing in the centre of the gallery with each personage vying for attention, this statement runs through my mind as well. These photographs have solidified Réhahn’s career but they are not the only thing that drives him.
A Museum for Ethnic Minorities
In January 2017, Réhahn opened his first museum—the Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An. With 500 m² of open space, the museum presents photographs that tower two metres high, traditional stories and music as well as the traditional garments and hats from each tribe that the photographer has collected over the course of his research. It is free to the public.
For Réhahn, photographing the ethnic minorities of Vietnam has a larger purpose than simply creating a lovely and unusual image for someone’s wall.
Yet, even with this goal in mind there are some critical voices that deem Réhahn’s work to be overly nostalgic. The subjects, in the opinions of some, are exaggerated and posed in a way as to suggest a Vietnam that no longer exists. The fact that Réhahn’s photographs have sold for record prices in Vietnam compounds the issue and despite the assertion that all of the proceeds from these photographs have gone to pay for the museums success breeds conversation and conversation can beget controversy.
Réhahn turns down many interviews for exactly this reason. From his website, these words:
“Réhahn is an artist who is passionate about his appreciation of Vietnamese culture and heritage. His work is a documentation of the beauty that surrounds him and is not up for political debate. Thank you for being respectful of the sensitivities within this beautiful and rich culture.”
Yet, when Réhahn does agree to talk for an article about minority tourism in Vietnam,
he doesn’t loll in the safe area of camera equipment and photography techniques; he willingly delves into the deepest backroads of Vietnam, the off-path locations where tribes can be found residing on mountaintops and hidden valleys—the places whose very inaccessibility has managed to keep the cultural traditions and craftsmanship of ethnic minorities alive.
A Reluctant Artist; A Passionate Anthropologist
I leave the hushed space of the Couleurs D’Asie gallery and find a table at l’Usine. Réhahn arrives a few minutes later. He shakes my hand and introduces himself with a soft French accent. He apologises for being late. He’s been busy preparing his next trip. Later that day, he is planning on travelling to the Himalayan region of India to meet the Ladakhi tribes. Tribes that fellow photojournalist, Jimmy Nelson, also documented.
In contrast to many of Réhahn’s subjects who look at the camera with bright candour, the photographer has a tendency to avert his eyes as he speaks. Staring at a fixed point in the distance, Réhahn ruminates on Vietnam, cultural identity and why cultural preservation is essential. He is careful as we speak, wary of his words being taken out of context or misunderstood but he makes one thing clear: he has more than just a passing interest in the people he photographs. Part anthropologist, part artist and in some cases an honorary family member, Réhahn is passionate and protective about the connection he has gained with the people he encounters. When Réhahn photographs the ethnic minorities of Vietnam he enters into their sacred space and strives to become more than just a passing note in it.
He waits for our drinks to come, the café slowly filling with the morning breakfast crowd and the scent of pancakes, before warming into the conversation.
“I’m a people person”, he says. “I love interacting. I love culture. Photography is a way to approach people. But, photography is not the main thing in my life. Some people only focus on the type of camera that they use. I’m not interested in talking about that because I think it’s just a tool.”
Being expected to talk solely about his photography equipment is a source of frustration for Réhahn. Asking an artist about their gear is par for the course, but Réhahn is more interested in delving into the deeper picture, so to speak.
“In my work there are two different types of photography”, he explains. “There is fine art photography and documentary photography. I have to do fine art because that is how I get income and that is how I drive my project. I mean, I like to do it but I prefer documentary.
“Some people do wedding photography to get income to follow their hobby. Me, I do fine art.
Some people don’t understand, they say, ‘Oh you sell photos of ethnic people and you make money’ and I say, ‘No. I’ve been working for seven years researching, and to create this project I have to sell limited edition photos. That is how I can create my museum.’”
In addition to the museum, Réhahn has launched a free app entitled “Precious Heritage” to document the minority tribes. Once downloaded, it gives access to the stories of all the tribes, the map that shows where they are, their traditional music. You can listen to children singing in their native language or download an iPhone photo background.
“What brought me to this project is that I love culture. I love history and I want to understand. In France, we have many cultural museums, so perhaps it’s part of my culture too to preserve, to keep and to love the history of culture.”
49 Out of 54 Tribes
Réhahn first came to Vietnam in 2007 with a French NGO called Enfants du Vietnam. He sponsored two girls from Hội An to help them go to school and then wanted to meet them to have a more meaningful connection.
“When we came, we fell in love with Hội An and this family. We decided to come back each year to spend time with them.” Réhahn pauses to laugh, “Finally, I said to my wife, ‘It’s better here. Why do we keep going back to France?’ ”
In May 2011, Réhahn and his family moved to Vietnam. They decided to discover a new region of the country and chose Sapa. “I expected to take photos of the landscape,” Réhahn says, “but instead I came back with photos of the people. People wearing the Hmong skirts and the Red Dao hats.” Réhahn didn’t set out to become a photographer focused on the ethnic minorities of Vietnam but he fell in love with the culture, the colours and especially the people.
This was the beginning of what would turn into a project spanning more than seven years. At the time of this article, Réhahn has met 49 out of the 54 tribes that exist in Vietnam.
“When I started, I didn’t talk much about doing this project because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to meet the 54 [ethnic tribes]. Now, I have 49 documented so I see that I can finish this project.”
These minority villages are not always easy to access. It took Réhahn three years to see one of the tribes because he needed permission from the Vietnamese army. Finally a stroke of luck came his way. VTV (a Vietnamese television station) featured the photographer in a documentary and secured the consent.
“It’s a small village. The smallest ethnic group in Vietnam, only 376 people (according to a 2009 census report). The chief of the village gave me a costume for the museum,” Réhahn says with pride. “I’m also building another museum for one particular tribe that I love—the Co Tu. I use all of my money for the museum. (The money from the sale of Réhahn’s highest priced photographs “Best Friends” and “Madam Xong” went directly to the creation of this museum.) Everything is free all the time so that we can open this information to as many people as possible.”
The planned design for the Co Tu Museum represents a traditional Guol community house
Completing the Circle and Seeking a Life Reset
The museum is part of what Réhahn calls his “Giving Back Project”. He describes the project as a circle—from the inception of the photograph to the selling of a print to the moment that Réhahn closes the circle by giving something back. He has paid school fees for the children of his subjects, offered cataract surgery and even purchased a new boat for a woman who made her living selling wares in a floating market.
“They welcome me like family,” Réhahn says. “I come every year. I pay school fees for all the kids. They give me drawings, they offer me pieces of pottery. It’s a story, its not only a photograph. It’s not just about the ego of the photographer. It’s so much more than that.”
Our conversation turns away from Réhahn’s work and onto the subject of the article: minority tourism and whether or not it is ethical and beneficial to the local population.
Réhahn pauses as the waitress brings another round of coffees. His face takes on the meditative look I’d grown accustomed to.
“Sapa is very complex. The bad kind of tourism is when people don’t even go into the villages to buy the handicrafts or to see the culture.”
I’m interested in what Réhahn thinks about experiential tourism. There are travellers out there who are looking for more than just a peek at a culture from the sidelines of a homogenised tour. Some tourists want a trip that transcends.
Réhahn often meets people who come back from Sapa and say they have had an incredible experience when they step off the path and actually immerse themselves into the way of life of the minority villages. “It’s like a reset button. They come and they feel like they’ve learned something. They say that it reminds them of what is important." This ‘reset’ is part of what drew Réhahn to photograph ethnic minorities of Vietnam.
“I think tourists are trying to find some adrenalin, some type of emotion,” Réhahn postulates. “Maybe some of them are trying to figure out if they’re on the right path. Maybe in their country they are just on the tablet, the kids are just on the tablet and they still don’t feel satisfied with their lives. Then they come to Sapa and it is a bit of a shock when you go into a village and you see people living in a wooden house and wearing a beautiful costume dyed with indigo, some silver jewellery made from French coins and they have a simpler way to live. And maybe it’s a cliché but they seem to be happy. Happy with less...” he trails off.
Culture Disrupted by Technology
I ask him if he thinks the Hmong are really happier with the new interest to their region. He says “yes” after some hesitation. His Hmong friends near Sapa say they have more income. They say that their life is much better than before but it comes with a price. The price will be that some of the culture disappears…
“The world has come,” Réhahn says. “Places still exist that are lost in time; I’ve seen them. But I’ve also found homestays at the very top of the mountains next to China and they have optic fibre technology. And there is zero tourism there.
“So we can’t really say that tourism destroyed the culture. It’s not that simple. I’ve met some tribes that have never seen any tourists and the culture has already changed. It is not so black and white. Sure, tourism can help to destroy it faster when it’s mass tourism, but technology can do it too.”
For example, some of these Northern regions “have access to Western clothes for one dollar—made in China. That’s the real culprit, for the traditional costumes anyway. We can’t say that the culture is just about the costumes, it is also about the dialect, about the festivals and everything. But why would they take a year to make one costume, to harvest the hemp to go through the process of indigo dying and all the embroidery, when you can have a T-shirt for almost nothing?”
Yet, in Réhahn’s opinion much of the beauty of the culture remains and still needs to be preserved. Photographing the ethnic minorities of Vietnam is a way to ensure something will endure.
“In the Dao community, you have these herbal baths, you can look out and see the mountains and be in this really hot water with herbs. I don’t think tourists come to Vietnam to see the rooftop of Bitexco. I mean, if you live in New York or Singapore or Japan, you don’t come to Vietnam to see that.
“I think that when people come here it is to find themselves a little bit, to find their truths, to reconnect to nature, because the landscape in Sapa is probably among the most beautiful of Vietnam. They have culture, landscape, good food, traditional medicine, simple life…but they also have a sense of humour. They are very welcoming. Very enthusiastic. You come to eat with them and they are proud.”
A Family Affair
Réhahn gets emotional for the only time during the interview when I ask whether he himself has ever had a life-changing experience while travelling to visit the tribes in Vietnam. Surprisingly, his story revolves around his young son rather than himself.
“I took my son to a village in Sapa last week. He’ll be six,” he says. “It was our first trip together, just us. He was so happy to be with the children and to be fully connected with me. I really feel like he learned something. I would recommend that for any family. I saw my son playing with the other children in the village, they couldn’t speak the same language but it didn’t matter. That is really special for a little boy. As a father to witness that, it’s beautiful.” Réhahn pauses, moved by the memory.
“Sapa is still the place—and believe me, I’ve been almost everywhere in Vietnam—where you can have the landscape, the tribes, the whole culture in one place and it is really authentic. It’s not like Chiang Mai in Thailand with the Kayan women with long necks. There you go, you pay, you see them but you can still feel that they are refugees. So you feel like they don’t get enough money from that. I went there. I took photos. But I never published because I still don’t know if it is good or not. It’s too hard to understand. There is a lot of propaganda from both sides. I’ve been to Cuba 14 times and I’ve seen many things there as well that I’ve never read in the media. It’s a lifetime’s work and there is always going to be someone who disagrees with you.
I ask what his favourite photograph is that he has ever taken.
“The famous photographs are good because they bring people to my galleries and museums. So they are important. My three most famous photos are very unusual, that’s why they are known. I always love my portrait of Madame Xong. She’s like a grandmother. I still have a relationship with her.
“But there is a photograph of one lady who touched me very deeply. Now she is 94. She is from the La Hu, and is one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She gave me one costume. She said, ‘I’m old. Take it for your museum.’ She could not speak Vietnamese so her grandson translated.
“I’ve never sold this photo but I love it.”
As we finish our coffee and head back to the gallery to get a more in-depth view of his photos, Réhahn summarises his view on his career in a few short sentences:
“So now you can understand after this interview why when people come and talk to me to ask me about my gear, what camera I use and all this useless debate, I’m not interested. You can have the most expensive camera in the world but unless you have a connection with the people you’re shooting, what’s the point?”
See more of Réhahn’s photographs of Vietnamese ethnic minorities in Saigon at:
Couleurs by Réhahn
Or in Hội An:
Or download the Precious Heritage app at:
Image source: rehahnphotographer.com