Réhahn has taken 1000s of portraits of people in Vietnam, Cuba, India, and numerous other locations during his career. Technique is important. But he feels that the real key to a meaningful portrait has to do with creating an authentic interaction. The photographer gives some tips for how to photograph with respect and emotion.
Authentic Connections for Great Portraits
The role of a good portrait photographer is to understand what your presence (and your camera) make the subject feel. I’m continually seeking opportunities to interact with people, but this doesn’t mean that I photograph of everyone I meet.
On the contrary, to catch a real moment or an emotion, it is sometimes necessary to put away the camera. Take in the person in front of you—not just the exceptional detail that sparked your interest in the first place.
There isn’t a “click” with every person we meet.
Photographing with Respect
Learning how to interact with a subject is not something that you can glean from a camera manual. However, there are a few simple things that I do recommend.
Speak to your subject. Get to know them.
You might be surprised to find a lifelong friendship with someone you wouldn’t have known otherwise. This, in itself, is the joy of the job. Not the photograph hanging in the gallery, but the memory of the connection.
I’ve written before about how some photographers make the mistake of “taking” photographs rather than “making” them. This means they literally shove a camera in the face of a person without asking permission. As a result, they strip them of their humanity. Unsurprisingly, these photographs often lack emotion.
It’s been written that I am able to “capture the souls” of the people in my portraits (Wanderlust magazine, September 2018). This is because I’m interested in finding the essence of who they are. And who better to help you find that essence than the actual person you’re photographing!
A good connection (and photograph) must start with respect.
You can own dozens of fancy lenses and learn all the techniques. But if respect isn’t at the base of your work, then you might as well zip your camera back into its bag and find a new career.
I’ve walked through narrow Hoi An and Havana alleys and climbed aboard boats floating down the Ganges. I’ve ridden my motorbike thousands of miles through Vietnam and waded through the sea to reach a tiny Malaysian island populated by water nomads. I’ve mainly done all of this because of my insatiable desire to meet new people and learn about their cultures. This is also what drove me to start my research and documentation for The Precious Heritage Project nearly a decade ago.
The focus of Precious Heritage is to include stories about the subjects and their ethnic heritage, not simply photographs. When I approach someone I take time to listen to them, share a meal, a cigar or a beverage. I let the interaction unfold with time.
As a result, I have an archive in my memory of days spent in the presence of incredible humans. People that I often return to see again and again. What memories would I have if I had simply walked into these remote villages snapped a few pictures and left?
The Keepers of Their Culture
People sometimes note that I love to photograph elderly women, but there is a reason for this. They are often the keepers of their culture! I can easily get lost for an afternoon in their histories and mysteries, learning about indigo dye or ancestral songs.
My team sometimes jokes that I am the “old lady whisperer“. This is because my subjects often take my hand and kiss me on the cheeks like I’m their long-lost nephew. In truth, it is they that charm me with their humor and joy for life regardless of their ages.
Women often laugh when they see their photos on the camera. Often they say: “I’m not pretty, why do you want my photo?” or “Why didn’t you come when I was young and beautiful?” They don’t see the immense power they have in their knowledge, expression and beauty.
Many of the ladies I meet in these areas also love to touch my beard. I’m not sure why, but it always makes them laugh. When I’m lucky enough to have an interaction like this, it gives me energy for the rest of the day. My assistant has recently started to film these meetings. When I go back and watch them, they always make me smile.
In the tribal culture in Central Vietnam, pipe smoking is an interactive and important part of the culture. Sometimes, I’ve gone into remote areas where the Vietnamese language has never been spoken. Instead of struggling through a conversation, I like to sit with the people I meet. We might smoke a pipe or a hand-rolled cigar and share a companionable moment as the smoke floats around us. The extra time spent enjoying something relaxing together builds our relationship and trust.
Cameras, Conversations and Kids
I love the feeling of going to a new village and allowing the interactions to happen naturally. Often children approach me first. It is easy to communicate with them through simple conversation, laughter and small gifts of food. Kids love being in photos but sometimes play hide and seek with the camera. I often let them take a selfie first on my phone so that they can see how it works. All children are fascinated to see their images suddenly appear on the digital screen.
However, even with children, there is a process of trust-building that takes time and sensitivity. If a child is uncomfortable or upset by the camera then I don’t take a photograph. It is as simple as that.
The Crossing of Paths
In some villages, everyone wants to come and talk to me, the foreigner (Ông Tây in Vietnamese). When I explain to them my purpose and show the photos as I take them, an incredible relationship can unfold.In other areas, people are more wary of speaking to a stranger and I respect this. If I am there for the Precious Heritage Project, I simply approach the chief of the community. He is usually very receptive to the idea of preserving artifacts, costumes, and stories about his culture in the museum. The Chief will then be the one to make introductions.
I always put my camera away and give my full attention to the person I’m meeting so that trust can build organically.
First, I sit near them but I never jump on them with the camera. I always use natural light, so we sit near the doorway and take time to get to know one another. I sometimes show them other portraits on my camera of their friends or neighbors or even portraits from previous photographic expeditions so that they can see what I’m doing and feel safe.
I’m always surprised by how people welcome me wholeheartedly into their lives and homes. They know that I’m a foreigner, but it ceases to matter after a while, and it becomes a meeting of souls. I can speak a little Vietnamese and some funny words in the Hmong or Co Tu languages.
Having a sense of humor is essential to creating a warm and comfortable environment.
I have more than 100,000 photos of Vietnam. Just a small selection of these end up in galleries. But I still love coming back to reconnect to my subjects. I bring them their photos even if I don’t use them, or I include them in my “Giving Back project”.
I love showing them their portraits or articles with their photos in them, and telling them how much people love them. I will never forget going back to Cuba to reconnect with one of my subjects named Francisco. When I offered him the book with his photograph in it he was immensely touched and was overcome with emotion.
These moments are invaluable and unforgettable.
No matter where I am, I wake early to catch the light before it loses that mysterious morning glow. I start to approach people. I’m not merely looking for subjects to photograph. I always hope to learn from the incredible humanity that surrounds us every day if you take time to look.