“Karma – The sum of a person’s actions in this and in previous states of existence decides their fate in future existences.” In other words: What goes around comes around. Going full circle.
The concept of karma carries special weight for Réhahn throughout his journey as a photographer. What starts as a smile and a click of a camera often leads to the communication of souls.
Réhahn strives to capture the soul of the person through his portraiture. What drives him is not as much the photograph itself, but the idea of being able to learn the subject’s story. Forget about hair and makeup, camera gear and retouching, this is about going deeper. The goal is to evoke the emotions reflected in the eyes of the subject as well as to connect with that person out of mutual respect.
When Réhahn leaves a village, he leaves with more than just his camera and the precious images he’d captured during his trip. He leaves filled with ideas about what he can do to help the people he encountered.
Once a photograph has been framed, displayed in the gallery and sold, the experience is still not complete. Réhahn goes one step further and retraces his steps to the village. He sets out to find the person featured in the photograph and presents them with something that will enhance the quality of their lives—this can range from medical care to equipment related to the subject’s trade to education. Réhahn sees himself as a guest in Vietnam and he wants to give back to the people who inspired him and helped him make a name in the photography world. In this way, Réhahn closes the circle of karma.
The idea of ‘giving back’ has become Réhahn’s mantra. He believes that a photograph is a collaborative work between the photographer and the subject.
The artist has an opportunity to take on social responsibility by giving back to those who inspired the image. With this philosophy of “conscious photography”, both the subject and the artist benefit.
Madame Xong, as she’s respectfully called by Réhahn, has since become one of the most famous women in Vietnam, featuring in more than two-hundred published articles worldwide. Her face has become an iconic representation of Vietnam worldwide.
The photo of Madame Xong is also featured in The Vietnamese Women’s Museum to represent the strength, kindness and hard work of the women of Vietnam.
Réhahn and Madame Xong’s story began in the summer of 2011 in Hoi An (Central Vietnam). At this time, Réhahn was a tourist with a keen interest in Vietnam. During his photographic explorations, he met this lovely woman while walking along the riverside and, instinctively drawn to her, he hopped into her boat and asked her if he could take her portrait. She shyly obliged and after seeing her own photo started giggling and covered her smile with her hand. This action inspired Réhahn to take another picture of her. When she covered her mouth with one hand and her forehead with the other, she framed the smile in her eyes, and the “Hidden Smile” project was born.
At that moment neither of them realized that this photograph would later become one of the most iconic images of Vietnam in the world. Réhahn chose this photo as the cover of his book “Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts” without hesitation.
In his mind, this image is a powerful representation of the Vietnamese spirit and the ability to experience the joys in life despite age and adversity. This photograph serves as a gentle reminder that there’s always something to be grateful for in daily life.
Madame Xong’s Dream…
While Réhahn was preparing his first book, “Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts” he decided to include Madam Xong’s story in his book. He asked her what she wished for the most, and she responded that she dreamed of owning a new boat. The boat she had was worn out and she wanted to have a new one that she could be proud of and that tourists would enjoy riding in. Madame Xong loves what she does and despite her age, she has no plan to stop working because she passionately loves meeting new people.
This conversation planted the seeds of the “Giving Back Project” in Réhahn’s mind. He promised Madame Xong that if the book sold well, he would return and buy her a new boat!
The book was published in January 2014 and became an international success. More than 1000 copies were sold within a few months in 29 different countries. The photographer kept his word and made Madame Xong’s dream come true.
In June of the same year, 6 months after publishing his book, he made Madame Xong the proud owner of a new boat.
Her smile now appears in dozens of international newspapers such as National Geographic, Los Angeles Times, Daily Mail, BBC, The Scotsman The China Morning Post, Paris Match…The list goes on!
The relationship with Madame Xong continues to deepen. She has become like a grandmother for the team. Réhahn has helped her with surgery to improve her eyesight and paid for the funeral for her husband and her son. She visits the Precious Heritage Museum every month to reconnect with Réhahn and to see her famous portrait on display.
AN PHUOC – A LITTLE GIRL WITH BLUE EYES
An Phuoc was seven years old when Réhahn took her portrait in 2015. She is the youngest in her family and lives with her brother, sister and parents near Phan Rang. Her parents make a modest living from a small carpentry and pottery business and had never left their village. They are descendants of the Cham ethnic group.
The Cham people have Malayo-Polynesian, with strong Buddhist and Hindu influence. There are close to 130,000 Cham now residing in the south of Vietnam. A few thousand Cham have settled in the desert region of Ninh Thuan, north of Nha Trang. Only some people still wear their traditional costumes because the time-consuming crafting methods have fallen out of favor for more easily accessible clothing. However, the Cham dialect, which is fundamentally different from other Vietnamese languages, is still widely spoken.
An Phuoc is notably different from other little Cham girls in her village due to her unusual piercing blue eyes. She’s always surprised when the few foreigners that pass through her village comment on her eyes.
Réhahn first became aware of this little girl when one of his Facebook followers contacted him to tell him about her. He always wanted to learn more about the Cham ethnic group so he jumped at the opportunity to go.
He took a flight to Nha Trang and made his way to Phan Rang with the intention of documenting the Cham and finding An Phuoc, who’s known as the ‘little girl with cat eyes’ in her community.
Réhahn had a feeling that this little girl’s photo would garner a lot of attention so he wanted to do something important for the whole family. He bought everyone much needed new clothes and for An Phuoc’s older sister, Sapa, he also purchased a bicycle so that she could cycle to her school, which is several kilometers away.
Réhahn’s final gift for the family was a cow that they affectionately named Bò Lai, which roughly translates into ‘Cow from Foreigner’.
It’s hard to explain the connection that was made between Réhahn and this family but they truly touched each other’s hearts. Réhahn promised to invite them to his hometown of Hoi An, in central Vietnam. For a family that had never left their village, this news obviously generated much excitement and joy. For them, the idea of flying on a plane for the first time was completely surreal.
The family flew to Hoi An where they stayed for four days as Réhahn’s guests in his home. They also had a chance to see Réhahn’s fine art gallery Couleurs by Réhahn in the city center. With Réhahn’s support, the two sisters are now learning to speak English, which is vital because it creates more opportunities for the children and family in the future.
Read the entire article about An Phuoc in Réhahn’s second book, “Vietnam Mosaic of Contrast Vol II”.
This iconic photo symbolizes the respect between the Mnong tribe and elephants. What makes this picture special is the contrasting opposites of a small girl in front of such a huge creature. Réhahn was unable to get close to the wild elephant, yet the little girl was able to approach it with no fear from girl or beast.
Note: This photo is part of Réhahn’s Fine Art Collection and was made to show the respect humans should have toward elephants and animals in general.
The Mnong people no longer produce their traditional costumes and few villagers still wear them. However, they have not lost their elephant training skills for which they are well known. Tracking and domesticating elephants is a very tricky and dangerous job. The hunters not only require special skills to overcome the challenges of capturing them, but they also need to overcome the adversity that a wild jungle presents.
This photograph will soon be representing the past rather than the present because sadly, there are less than 50 of these elephants approximated to be left in the whole country.
Taken in 2014, this shot has been published in more than 40 countries and several globally renowned newspapers such as Times magazine and BBC
In June 2016, Réhahn returned to give back to the family. He offered to help them renovate their house but they declined. Instead, they asked him to buy them a cow. It’s easy to feed and can later be resold for two.
Réhahn bought two cows, one mother and one baby female calf. This way, they can reproduce more cows, which will eventually become a great investment for the family. The whole village came to watch the cows being delivered and to congratulate the family and welcome Réhahn. The event soon turned into a full-blown village party!
As a parting gift, Réhahn was given a traditional, vintage costume to add to his Precious Heritage Collection.
GIVING BACK WITH AN EDUCATION
Schools to Build a Better Life
Educational Giving Back projects were launched with an idea that began more than 11 years ago when Réhahn visited Vietnam with a French NGO called Enfants du Vietnam (EDV). Réhahn’s mission then was to provide schooling for a young girl and his ensuing interest in helping her continue her education was one of the catalysts for his relocation to Vietnam.
According to statistics by EDV, only a fifth of the students who begin primary school in these areas will finish high school. Continuing on to university is even rarer, especially for the ethnic groups.
EDUCATIONAL PROJECTS FOR YOUTH IN VIETNAM
In 2019, two educational foyers were created to assist children who live in rural areas with no schools in close proximity. Youth in these remote regions often have to walk 5 to 15 kilometres to go to school each day.
Beyond being inconvenient, it was also dangerous for kids of this age to walk so far every day through uncertain terrain. This reality decreases the odds of them finishing a secondary or even a primary education.
The foyers can act as boarding centers close to traditional schools, so that the children are able to study without the dangers of walking so far through uncertain terrain.
The first foyer was officially inaugurated in Nghia Lo, Yen Bai Province in April 2019 with 40 young boys accepted for room and board. It will benefit the Hmong ethnic group that resides in the region.
The second foyer is located in the village of Giang Lo, Ngoc Hoi District in Kontum province and will assist in the education of Sedang youth. It will house up to 25 young boys between the ages of 11 and 15 years old and will officially open in November 2019.
Construction will begin on a 3rd foyer in January 2020. It will be located in the Lam Dong province in the village of K’NAI, which is very isolated and difficult to access. The villagers are mainly from two ethnic groups that originated from Indonesia – the Chu Ru and the Co Ho. In 2004, a Dutch association built a small foyer that has since been used for 60 students. Since then the school has fallen into disrepair but the need has increased. The Giving Back Project will renovate the current structure as well as build additional buildings in order to accept more students. This agricultural region is sorely in need of this school that will assist the youth to advance in their studies and increase their future opportunities.
The foyers, created in collaboration with the French NGO Enfants du Vietnam, act as halfway houses for children who live too far away from traditional schools to be able to continue their education.
By funding 100% of the construction for foyers in remote areas, where there are many ethnic tribes, the Giving Back project hopes to sustainably support the educational journey of children from these ethnic groups, in order to increase their likelihood of finishing secondary school and continuing onto university.
Museums that Give Back to the Community
The first large scale community outreach project was the Precious Heritage Museum, accomplished in 2017, with the goal of respectfully representing all of the ethnic groups in Vietnam.
It contains the most extensive collection of information, tribal costumes and images of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups in the world.
It took nearly a decade to collect the costumes, photos, music and information of all 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam including 4 years to save money to fund the museum, buy, renovate and decorate the ancient French-style house in central Hoi An.
It contains the most extensive collection of information, tribal costumes and images of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups in the world.
CO TU COMMUNITY HOUSE
In 2019, the Co Tu Museum opened. The Co Tu Museum is the first museum in Vietnam that is 100% dedicated to one single tribe. It will act as both a community center for tribal gatherings as well as a place to preserve artifacts and important cultural history.
Though the public is also welcome to visit this free museum, it is truly a gift to the Co Tu people. The museum, located in Tay Giang district along the Mekong river, has been built as a traditional Guol, or Co Tu community center.
Here the group will be able to preserve valuable artifacts and objects important for the preservation of their heritage. The center will also serve as a gathering point for Co Tu festivals.
The concept for this museum actually came from Mr. Doi, the Chief of a Co Tu village, who expressed to Réhahn his fears about their tribal culture not being passed on to the next generation.
“When we pass away, who will tell the young people about our ancient traditions?” Mr. Doi asked.
Réhahn was able to fund the museum in full thanks to the sales of his fine art photography and books. As the culture changes it is important to find a way to preserve it despite the challenges.
THE FUTURE OF GIVING BACK
Réhahn believes photos are like time capsules. Each one is a single moment that can tell part of a story and seal it in time.
However, there is life to be experienced beyond the photo and Réhahn’s giving back project helps him to maintain and honor the relationships he’s made with his subjects as well as directly improving their quality of life. Though he is not an ethnologist, Réhahn finds great satisfaction in helping to preserve a part of the history of vibrant Vietnam.
Réhahn has made it his mission to be part of the first wave of the ‘giving back’ movement. His hope is to inspire other photographers to do the same.