An Phuoc’s intriguing lineage can be read on her face. Her story goes from the noble history of the Cham ethnic group to her startling blue eyes passed down through French bloodlines.
Réhahn’s portraits of An Phuoc and her sister Sapa met instant success in the international media. More importantly, his relationship with their family has deepened into a lifelong friendship, nurtured through The Giving Back Project.
CHAM PEOPLE, THEN AND NOW
The Cham people are descendants from the Champa Empire, which dates as far back as the 2nd century A.D. They controlled Central Vietnam and portions of eastern Cambodia and Laos for nearly 15 centuries.
Approximately 161,700 Cham still live in Central and Southern Vietnam today, including An Phuoc and her family.
They represent the root of the Muslim population in Vietnam, but they are also influenced by Buddhist and Hindu rituals.
When Réhahn crossed paths with An Phuoc’s family in Ninh Thuan province in 2014, he’d already launched The Precious Heritage Project. His goal was to seek out all 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam to document their diverse cultures, traditions and costumes.
A few thousand Cham live in the arid region of Ninh Thuan. Although only a few wear their traditional costumes, they all speak their dialect which is different from other Vietnamese languages. Réhahn decided to visit the group in hopes of learning more about their culture.
A few weeks before his trip, a friend informed him of a small Cham girl “with blue cat eyes.”
Curious to meet her and her ethnic group, Réhahn asked people in the area to help him locate her village. The mission proved easier than expected.
An Phuoc’s family is well known in the area because of a rare genetic difference. An Phuoc is not the only one to have light eyes. Her father and brother both have blue eyes, while her sister, Sapa, has one hazel eye and one blue.
At seven years old, An Phuoc is the youngest in her family. She lives with her brother, sister, and parents in a small village. Her parents make their living doing pottery and carpentry work.
When Réhahn arrived at the family home and explained the reason for his visit, An Phuoc’s parents and big brother welcomed him warmly. However, they were initially wary of allowing a portrait due to a previous experience with a disrespectful journalist.
Réhahn put away his camera, more interested in hearing their story than anything else.
A FRENCH CONNECTION
They invited Réhahn to dinner, during which time the photographer and his hosts established a genuine bond. They enjoyed sharing stories and laughing together over homecooked food. After this first evening, An Phuoc’s family invited him to stay with them for two more days! He accepted with pleasure.
The artist soon learned that the children’s paternal great grandfather had passed down the blue-eyed gene. Like Réhahn, he was French.
This perhaps explained part of the warmth and affinity the family shown him on their very first meeting.
At the end of his stay, An Phuoc’s parents granted the artist permission to take portraits of her and her sister Sapa. Their older brother was also reassured when he understood that Réhahn was a photographer not a journalist.
Réhahn’s sole purpose for being there was to show the beauty of his sisters to the world.
This experience proved the photographer’s philosophy that it is important to take time to create a relationship. Never rush to snap photos with no regard to the actual person in front of the lens.
Always treat subjects with respect.
Before leaving, Réhahn promised to return to help them in any way that he could as well as to invite them to his home in Hoi An.
THE BIRTH OF A FRIENDSHIP
This portrait of An Phuoc has become one of the photographer’s most well-known images.
The success allowed Réhahn to sponsor the family by paying for the educations of both Sapa and An Phuoc. He also provided them with clothes, financial support and a bicycle to ride to school, located kilometres away from home.
Thanks to the Réhahn’s sponsorship, the two sisters are now learning to speak English to improve their future possibilities.
In June 2014, these newfound friends met again, this time in Hoi An. The family had never flown on an airplane. They were excited to have the chance to discover Central Vietnam.
The family stayed in Réhahn’s home and visited his Couleurs by Réhahn Fine Art Photography gallery. It was an emotional moment when they saw the display featuring the portraits of the two sisters.
Since then, Réhahn has returned many times to visit. He considers them to be part of his family in Vietnam—a serendipitous meeting, which has led to a lifelong bond.