Réhahn’s series of portraits entitled “Hidden Smile” is a portrayal of the beautiful optimism that is present within the Vietnamese culture. Madame Xong’s hidden smile launched the series with her now iconic image.
The World of Hidden Smiles in Vietnam
Much has been written about Vietnam, the complex history, the mysterious culture, the incredible tenacity of the people. But, it might come as a surprise to some to discover that the country also scores high points for happiness.
Vietnam ranked fifth in the world out of 140 countries on the Happy Planet Index and second in the Asia Pacific region. The country has a high level of well-being, an impressive average life expectancy, and a low ecological footprint. Vietnam has also seen rapid development over the last ten years and increased income as a result. Perhaps, these factors are part of what has made Vietnam a “smiling nation”.
But these determinants don’t tell the whole story. Behind the kind faces of the Vietnamese people lies the spirits of survivors and a cultural endurance which remains unmatched. In this country, a smile can express a diverse array of emotions that can be difficult to translate for foreigners.
However, one thing is clear: a smile is the gateway that allows connections between people to be made.
A Universal Smile
“I believe smiles open doors.” – Réhahn
The dictionary defines a smile as “a pleased expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the teeth exposed.” No matter where one is in the world, people smile in the same language.
A smile is a powerful tool. It can break the ice in an awkward situation. while the lack thereof can instantly turn the mood cold. Smiling is multilayered. It stands for more than just joy or laughter. From the shy giggles of children to the welcoming grins of marketplace vendors; there are expressions for every shift in emotion.
Behind the Smile
In modern society, the ability to criticize is often mistaken for intelligence. Negativity streams out of our smartphones through social media and our newsfeeds. What once was critical thinking—the ability to objectively analyze data to form a judgement—has become simple criticism. This is why it is refreshing to travel to Vietnam, where beaming faces shine out from every corner. This smiling spirit gives the country an aura of optimism.
Travelers to the region may mistake the grins for a simple spirit, but don’t be fooled. There are worlds of hidden meaning behind these expressions that are impossible to fully articulate.
Réhahn’s series of fine art portraits entitled “Hidden Smile” attempts to see the smile through a different lens. The subjects of the photographs cover their mouths to create a frame for their eyes. They allow the viewer to get a deeper glimpse of the emotion present on their faces.
Smiling is a global way to express emotion, a universal language. But, there is more than just a physical, muscle-tensing of the face. Réhahn focuses on the lines that are left behind after years of smiling. He is interested in the details that are written by the wrinkles around the eyelids and marks on the hands. A person’s life story leaves an imprint on the body and the human face is the map of these memories.
The Inspiration for The Hidden Smile Project
“Each smile has a magic energy that draws people closer.” – Réhahn
Réhahn’s inspiration for the project started by accident in the summer of 2011 in Hoi An, Central Vietnam. This is when he met Mrs. Bui Thi Xong, or Madam Xong, as Réhahn affectionately calls her.
Madam Xong is featured on the cover of Réhahn’s first book “Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts”.
At the time, Réhahn was a tourist with a keen interest in Vietnam. During his photographic explorations, he noticed a woman ferrying tourists along Hoi An’s waterways in her sampan boat. Instinctively drawn to her, he asked for a ride.
First shot of Madam Xong before her well-known portrait
When Réhahn asked Madam Xong if he could take her portrait she shyly obliged. After seeing her own photo, she started giggling and covered her smile with one hand. This action inspired Réhahn to take another picture of her in this pose. For the second shot, she covered her mouth with one hand and her forehead with the other pretending to hide. Her hands framed the smile and that was the birth of the “Hidden smile” project.
Neither of them realized that this image would become one of the most well-known photos of Vietnam in the world.
The more that Réhahn traveled, the more he realized that covering one’s mouth is a common action in Vietnam. For reasons such as modesty, politeness, discomfort or joy, people cover their mouths when they laugh or receive a compliment. This is part of why Réhahn decided to create a series showing the complex beauty of the hidden smile.
Children giggle when they see their portraits, covering their mouths out of barely contained glee. Older women smile shyly, amused when Réhahn asks them if he can take their photograph. One 87-year-old woman from the Ngai ethnic group had a good laugh about the smile in her portrait, saying she “didn’t have any teeth … yet.”
These smiles are a window into Vietnamese culture, a way to get to know the diverse people who reside here.
No Black Teeth, No Marriage
There are tales that date to before the first Cham settlers made their home in Vietnam during the 7th century. Then, it was a common belief among Vietnamese that only devils, savages, and wild animals had long white teeth. At adolescence, females were taught to file and blacken their teeth so they wouldn’t be mistaken for an evil spirit. The painful annual blackening of the teeth process became an essential part of the beauty ritual. Yet, the color eventually faded and women started looking for new ways to prolong the effect.
The answer came from the Cham people who introduced the Areca (Betel) nut to the Vietnamese. When chewed, the Betel quid causes a mild and slightly addictive stimulating effect. The side results are red lips, blushed cheeks and blackened teeth. It wasn’t long before a whole new beauty industry was born and the Betel nut became part of Vietnamese culture. Children were taught from a young age to prepare the mixture of lime powder, Betel leaf, and nut into what is known as the quid. Stocks were replenished regularly to be prepared to welcome visitors.
‘No betel quid – no courtship, no marriage’, is an old proverb that is still going strong today. The tradition is so deeply rooted that it is considered an element of prestige and part of the national identity.
What Is The Hidden Smile Project?
Réhahn wants the viewer to make their own conclusions as to what lies behind the covered smile. He wants to leave people guessing, but most of all he wants people to look at the face and realize there’s a deeper story to be told, a story that is yet to be discovered.
Hidden Smiles in the permanent collection at the Women’s Museum in Hanoi