Réhahn’s portraits of Vietnam, Cuba, India, and Malaysia have been published all over the world. He’s taken 1000s of portraits during his career but he feels that the key to a successful portrait has less to do with technique and more to do with having an authentic and meaningful connection with the subject. Here, he gives some tips for how to photograph with respect and emotion
Authentic Connections Make for Great Portraits
One of the main characteristics of humankind is that we are a social species. We thrive on interaction. From the moment we are born, we seek eye contact, acceptance, and touch. Yet, there is another side to these interactions as well. Some people make us want to laugh, others make us shut down or feel uncomfortable.
There isn’t a “click” with every person we meet.
One of the roles of a good portrait photographer is to understand what your presence (and the presence of your camera) make the subject feel. I am constantly seeking opportunities to interact with people, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I take photographs of everyone I meet. On the contrary, to catch a real moment or an emotion, it is sometimes necessary to put away the camera and take in the actual person in front of you—not just the color of their eyes or the unusual detail that sparked your interest in the first place.
Photographing with Respect
Learning how to interact with a subject is not something that can be gleaned from a camera manual but there are a few simple things that I do recommend. Speak to your subject, get to know them and 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 and as a result, 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).
A good connection (and photograph) must start with respect.
No matter how many fancy lenses you own or how many techniques you learn, if respect is not at the base of your work then you might as well zip your camera back into its bag and find a new career.
This portrait is the perfect example of how a beautiful moment can happen when you least expect it. I was photographing children when I happened to notice this Hmong lady light up her pipe. I asked her if she could make more smoke and, surprised by this unexpected question, she started laughing and I was able to capture her incredible expression.
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 more than eight years ago.
The focus of this project is to include stories about the subjects and their ethnic heritage, not simply photographs. So I know that when I approach someone it is to sit with them, to listen to them, to share a meal, a cigar or a beverage and to 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” because of the way my subjects take my hand and kiss me on the cheeks like I’m their long-lost nephew but in truth, it is they that charm me with their sense of humor and their joy for life regardless of their age.
When I met this 103-year-old lady from the Rengao ethnic group she could hardly speak Vietnamese so her husband helped translate for us. They invited me into their home and we spent an hour drinking tea and communicating with one another as best we could. She was proud to show me her birth certificate with a letter signed by the prime minister in celebration of her 100th birthday. I finally took my camera out just before I left and asked if I could take her portrait. She accepted and now when I look at this photograph I see so much experience and emotion in her face. She opened her soul to me and for that I am grateful.
Early morning, my very first shot, I caught a photo of Lung Su Tinh, an ageless beauty from the Phu La ethnic group in Northern Vietnam. She started howling with laughter when she saw her portrait—the first time she’d ever seen a photo of herself and her first time meeting a foreigner. What a joyful way to start the day!
They always 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 am lucky enough to have a sweet interaction like this in the morning, it gives me an incredible energy for the rest of the day. My assistant has recently started to film these interactions, and when I go back and watch them they always make me smile.
In Vietnam, pipe smoking is an interactive and important part of the culture, enjoyed by both men and women. 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 and smoke a pipe or, in my case a hand-rolled cigar, and share a moment in companionable silence as the smoke floats lazily around our heads. The extra time spent enjoying something relaxing together builds our relationship and trust.
I came across this little girl from the Hmong ethnic group when I was photographing the process of making indigo dye in 2014. She had dipped her hands in the colorful liquid while her mother and grandmother were out. Like a badge of blue for work well done, she was delighted to show her hands to me afterwards and I was able to catch her playful spirit in action.
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 and 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.
I had the chance to capture this portrait of 91-year-old Ly Ca Su from the La Hu tribe three years after my original encounter with her. On the first meeting with the tribe, I’d had a motorcycle accident which caused me to shorten my stay. Disappointed that I wasn’t able to learn more about the La Hu and to get to know and eventually photograph Ly Ca Su, I made a promise to return. When I finally made it back she was touched that I’d taken the time and she gave me one the traditional costumes of the La Hu people for the Precious Heritage museum. Good things do come to those who wait!
The Crossing of Paths
In some villages, everyone wants to come and talk to me, the foreigner (Ông Tây in Vietnamese). As I explain to them my purpose and show them 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 who 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 once people get used to me they welcome me wholeheartedly into their lives and homes. They know that I am from somewhere else 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 and just a small selection of these end up in galleries but I still love coming back after a few months to reconnect to my subjects, to bring them their photos or something as part of 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.
They are the reason that every morning, no matter where I am, I wake up early to catch the light before it loses that mysterious morning glow and start to approach people, not just for my photographs but with the hope of always learning from the incredible diversity of the humanity that surrounds us every day if you know where to look.
Madam Xong and I celebrating our birthdays together. I met her almost a decade ago when I climbed into her sampan boat to take her portrait. Now she is family to me.