Behind the Hidden Smile


Behind the Hidden Smile

The project

Almost every dictionary describes the definition of a smile as ‘a pleased expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the teeth exposed’. So if there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that all people smile in the same language.
However, we all know that a smile can hide many different emotions and can change many different situations. A smile is a powerful tool. It can break the ice in an awkward situation and we all know too well that the lack of a smile can also feel as cold as ice. Which makes one wonder, what kind of emotions can lie behind a smile?

Hidden Smile by Rehahn

The inspiration

Réhahn has set about interpreting what lies behind a smile with his collection of portrait photos titled The Hidden Smile. He believes that smiling is a global way to express emotion, a universal language. A smile has the ability to make people comfortable and often a smile from a stranger can lift one out of a dark and negative space.

But he sees beyond the physical, muscle-tensing of the face. He focuses on the details that are left behind after years of smiling, the details that are written by the wrinkles around the eyelids and the deep lines in the hands. A person’s life story leaves an imprint on the body and the human face mirrors this life story.

Réhahn’s own journey of the Hidden Smile Project started by accident in the summer of 2011 in Hoi An, central Vietnam when he met Mrs. Bui Thi Xong, a 74 year old lady who features on the cover of his first successful book called “Vietnam, Mosaic of contrasts” and now in the “Hidden smile”

photo Book cover Réhahn

At that time, Réhahn was a tourist with a keen interest in Vietnam. During his photographic explorations, he met this lovely old lady while walking along the riverside and, instinctively drawn to her, hopped onto her boat.

Madam Xong, as she’s affectionately called by Réhahn is a sampan boat owner whose present day job is to ferry tourists along the waterways of her hometown, Hoi An. She was very warm and welcoming towards him. He asked her if he could take her portrait. With a shy response, she awkwardly obliged and after seeing her own photo, started giggling and covered her smile with one hand.

This action inspired Réhahn to take another picture of her in this pose and then she covered her mouth with one hand and her forehead with the other pretending to hide.

Framing her eyes to do the smiling, the birth of the “Hidden smile” project began.
At that moment neither of them realized that this photo would later become one of the most iconic photos in Vietnam and now the world. Her expression was so intriguing and inspiring to him. Even though her smile is hidden, there’s so much written on her face.

It turns out that covering your mouth as you smile is a common action for the elders in Vietnam, especially among females. Actually, I’ve found myself doing it too without realizing. Here in Vietnam, it’s common for elders to cover their mouths when they are speaking, giggling softly or laughing uncontrollably. When people are shy, they cover their mouths with their hands. A lot of older people in Vietnam, through hardships have lost their front teeth so they also cover their mouths. But besides this, look closely at the eyes, the hands and the face. What stories can you imagine about this woman’s life?

Hidden smile in Sapa

Réhahn, who specializes in portrait photography, started seeing the smile in a different way. He saw that the whole face is an expression. Every crease where the smile forms leaves a map of lines that tells many stories. Madam Xong’s smile radiated through her eyes and her lined face and hands tell the story of her journey, a beautiful, yet mysterious portrait typical of the photographer’s style, leaving the viewer to interpret their own meaning.Hidden Smile of Cham girl

When Madam Xong’s portrait was launched to the world by the international media, it was met with many questions. People wanted to know more about this woman. Who is she? Why is she covering her smile? All these questions were really inspiring to the photographer so in response he published a series of portraits under title ‘The Hidden Smile’ featuring both the young and old in similar poses, which he selected from a backlog of photographs taken over the last eight years, representing people from every corner of Vietnam. Follow us on our journey as we reveal more ‘Hidden Smiles’

Rene Leen

MORE: Read Réhahn’s interview about Hidden Smile

Young girl Co Tu