Vanishing Tribes with Rehahn Photography

2 Apr 2017

The photographer who captures the souls of tribes

We recently interviewed Réhahn, a French photographer, particularly renowned for his portraits of Vietnam, Cuba and India. The media regularly cites him as the Photographer who captures the souls of his models and he has been ranked the second most popular French photographer on the web. The publication of his book « Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts », comprising of 150 photographs which depicts the country’s diversity, sold in 29 countries and became a bestseller in Vietnam. We asked Réhahn about his photography and what inspires him every day.

How did you decide to start your journey as a photographer? Who was your biggest influence?

It started with my love of people and learning new cultures. Being able to capture different ways people live is illuminating. I’m also a history bookworm so am fascinated in countries with interesting stories to tell.

Sebastio Salago is one of my inspirations. He said: “A good photographer should know history and geography..”

Steve McCurry is my other inspiration. I find his portrait collection spellbinding.

 We know you currently live in Vietnam – can you tell me why you chose this place as your home?  

After reading so much about Vietnam’s complicated history, I was very surprised to see how peaceful, warm and hospitable the country is.  After visiting the major cities, Hoi An as a charming small town impressed me the most. It has a really slow relaxed pace, the food is good and there are no traffic jams. It only takes me 5min to get to the beach or go to town so it offers me a healthy balance for mind and body.

We were really impressed to see you featured in National Geographic. Congratulations, how do you feel about that?

National Geographic’s name and reputation is known worldwide so it certainly was an honor to have been featured. Since then, I’m happy to have cooperated with them numerous times. They are a great source for photographers and artists worldwide.

We’ve read a little bit about the Giving Back Project, but would love to hear more about it in your own words – how did it all start?

The Giving Back project was inspired by one of my first most successful images. Madam Xong is the lady that graces the cover of ‘Vietnam, Mosaics of Contrasts’. When we met in 2011, we had no idea her image would become so famous. When I saw the success of her image, I felt a bit responsible to give something back to her to make her life better. Since then I have returned to many of the people featured in my works. Most of the people that live in remote villages live from hand to mouth so buying them some animals, renovating their house or paying their child’s English lessons, can really change their lives. I would like to make other photographers aware of the social responsibility and opportunity ‘Giving Back’ can bring.

We’re really interested in knowing, how on earth, you find these hidden tribes?

Some ethnic groups are easy to find but others are not. The Ơ đu Tribe is the smallest ethnic tribe in Vietnam with only 340 people. They live in a remote area in Nghe An city. Online information can prove unreliable. My first attempt at finding them took about 2 days because they had moved from the original settlement. They had apparently moved 10 years ago already but that kind of information can sometimes be missed. Before every trip, I do some research and once I have an idea of where I’m going, I take my chances. It definitely helps if you can find a reliable person that can act as your guide. I’m lucky that I’ve managed to learn conversational Vietnamese and being able to communicate a little, opens doors that would ordinarily stay shut.

How do you establish trust with these tribes?

It’s very important to know the general customs of Vietnamese people. The elderly are respected like very few countries on earth. I seek out the elders to explain why I’m there. Asking people to tell you stories of their lives is a wonderful way to establish a connection. These tales are usually full of hidden treasures and it gives me great pleasure to hear them. Gradually, they open up to me and usually after sharing a meal together, we become friends.  Become a friend first, photographer second.

We recently read an article on Jimmy Nelson’s work on photographing tribes and some people view that an exhibition of photographs of tribal people may mean well, but in reality operates as propaganda for those oppressing these peoples – if it’s not too contentious a topic, what can you say about this?

I think it’s important to be sensitive to peoples’ experiences and wanting to share their culture and traditions isn’t in conflict with their history. So far, I have been lucky in that the people I’ve encountered haven’t had any hatred in their hearts. This is another aspect of this culture that amazes me. Celebrating people’s heritage and acknowledging them as important is something that has so far been welcomed by the tribes I have approached.


Photo credit: © Rehahn Photography