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
This word and its meaning have carried 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 capture the subject’s story. Forget about hair and makeup, camera gear and retouching, this is about going deeper. The goal is to capture not only the emotions reflected in the eyes of the subject but also to connect with that person out of mutual respect.
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 photographer 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.
The Birth Of The “Giving Back Project”
Many photographers have a sense of responsibility running through their photographic work, whether it’s photojournalists like Ami Vitale and Cesar Dezfuli, whose commitment to their subjects goes far beyond sharing their photographic stories, or photographic artists like Réhahn or Kenro Izu, who use their photography to give something back to the people and places that make their work possible.
The Openning Of The Circle
It all started with Mrs. Bui Thi Xong, a 74-year-old woman who was featured on the cover of Réhahn’s first book “Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts”. She was also featured in the “Hidden Smile” project.
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 in Central Vietnam. At this time, Réhahn was a tourist with a keen interest in Vietnam. During his photographic explorations, he met this lovely old 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 old age and adversity. This photograph serves as a gentle reminder that there’s always something to be grateful for in daily life.
Madam 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. While speaking with her, he asked what the thing was that 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. Madam 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 her that if the book sold well, he would return and buy her a new boat!
The Closing Of The Circle
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 Madam 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 museum every month to reconnect with Réhahn and to see her famous portrait on display.
AN PHUOC – A little Vietnamese Girl
With Startling 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 and Hindu origins, 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. They look like two azure marbles, which is in contrast with her dark skin and hair. She’s always surprised when the few foreigners that pass through her village comment on her eyes.
The Openning Of The Circle
Réhahn first became aware of this little girl when one of his more than 230,000 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.
Upon arrival, Réhahn was taken to the family’s modest home where he was warmly welcomed. An Phuoc’s paternal great-grandfather was French and his unique eyes run in the family. Her father has two blue eyes and her sister, Sapa, has one blue and one hazel.
Réhahn was invited to have dinner with the family. A warm connection was made and he eventually ended up spending two days as a guest in their home. They spent those two days laughing, sharing stories and taking photos. They became instant friends.
The Closing Of The Circle
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 afectionately 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 definitely 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”.
The Story Of Kim Luan
The Closing Of The Circle
This iconic photo symbolizes the respect between the M’nong 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. This photo is part of Réhahn’s fine art photography collection and was made to show the respect humans should have toward elephants and animals in general.
The M’nong 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 only 50 of these elephants left in the whole country.
Taken in 2014, this shot has been published in more than 40 countries and several world-famous magazines such as Times magazine and National Geographic. This photo is Réhahn’s most famous photo in his collection.
The Closing Of The Circle
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.
One Photograph To Build A Better Life
In 2019, Réhahn will launch two of his biggest giving back projects to date. The first comes from 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.
Over the last 11 years, Réhahn has gone from being a traveller interested in culture and photography to becoming one of the most recognized travel portrait photographers in the world, yet his core purpose remains the same: to help those in need and to maintain his own integrity.
100% of proceeds earned from photographs featuring children, including the famous Girl with the Blue Eyes and Best Friends will now be shared in full between the families of the subjects and worthy projects geared to help young people have a better quality of life and a brighter future.
This process means that both first-time buyers and collectors of Réhahn’s work will also be a part of the giving back circle. The money that they invest in the artwork will go directly to those who need it most.
Each year, Réhahn aims to participate in a minimum of 2 projects in partnership with EDV, his trusted organization. The first will be a “foyer” for Hmong youth in Mu Cang Chai. The children’s homes are far from their school so this foyer will act as a home-away-from-home during the week so that the children can pursue their studies without the necessity (and sometimes impossibility) of traveling the long distances home each day. Future projects will relate to the construction of schools and orphanages.
Museums That Give Back
To The Community
The Precious Heritage Museum is well-known in Vietnam because of the beauty of Réhahn’s portrait photography as well as the fact that it contains the most extensive collection of information, tribal costumes and images of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups in the world. This museum is an ongoing gift because it will become an important record of the tribal groups’ past, present and future.
The museum is completely free to the public in an effort to disperse the knowledge and beauty of the ethnic tribes to the world.
It has taken Réhahn more than 8 years to collect the costumes, photos, music and information of 53 of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam as well as 4 years to save enough money to fund the project, buy, renovate and decorate the ancient French-style house in central Hoi An.
Co Tu Community House
In addition, Réhahn will open the Co Tu museum in 2019. 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. Information will be available in Vietnamese, En- glish and French as well as the Co Tu native tongue.
The Co Tu Museum will be the first museum in the Vietnam that is 100% dedicated to one single tribe.
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.
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.
The personal joy he receives in ‘giving back’ has made his work deeper and his life fuller. 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.
Read the BBC article about the project