Within some people there is the insatiable desire to travel, to experience, to create and to document. Réhahn’s choice to become a photographer stemmed from this aspiration to voyage in order to gain knowledge about other cultures and ways of life.
The artist has visited more than 35 countries and taken thousands of portraits over the course of his career, but his heart resides in Vietnam, where the immense diversity of the Vietnamese people has inspired his most passionate projects to date.
The Precious Heritage Project started as a way to connect to the people and cultures of Vietnam. Over time it grew into a massive undertaking to meet, photograph and document the stories, music and traditional crafts and costumes of all 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country. This mission took Réhahn the better part of a decade to realize, finally completing the project in 2019.
Though he does not consider himself to be an ethnologist, Réhahn is always looking for opportunities for cultural exchange. From tales that are passed down through generations to handmade tribal costumes and traditional music, there is a rich, intangible cultural heritage present within Vietnam that Réhahn has had the privilege to witness, document and preserve through his lens and his cultural museums.
Living in the World Heritage city of Hoi An with his own family has made Réhahn think more deeply about the value of heritage and the ways in which it is possible to honor the past and the present even as we move ever forward towards the future.
With this in mind, Réhahn has spent nearly a decade travelling into the deepest, tucked away corners of Vietnam to document and preserve the stories, photographs and traditional costumes of all of Vietnam’s tribal people.
In 2019, the artist was proud to announce the completion of the Precious Heritage Project. Now, stories, portraits, costumes and artifacts can be seen in the Museum from all 54 officially recognized ethnic groups and many subgroups. The exhibition is free to the public as a way to increase knowledge, understanding and pride in the ethnic diversity of Vietnam.
The first trip to a remote village in Vietnam is always a moment of reflection for Réhahn. There are still areas of Vietnam that have very little contact with foreigners and it is not always possible to know how a stranger walking into the community will be received. Yet, again and again, Réhahn has been met with kind smiles and curiosity.
Children are usually the first to approach, bringing with them their natural irreverence and openness. They chatter at him, asking questions about who he is and what he’s doing. Their laughter as he attempts to communicate with them in Vietnamese brightens the atmosphere.
In each community that he visits, Réhahn tries to seek out the elders because he knows that their stories will be the richest, the most captivating. It is also a way to show respect because in so many ways they are the “keepers of their culture.”
When the elders speak of their culture or put on their traditional dress, their eyes light up. Listening to their stories and capturing images of them in their environment has a profound effect on Réhahn.
The precious stories they tell about their lives, their traditions … what has been lost, what has been gained … are the inspiration for what Réhahn attempts to capture— a glimpse of their distinctive spirits.
In many areas of Vietnam, the cultural costumes that are unique to each ethnic minority tribe are either no longer being made or are being replaced by factory facsimiles or pre-made clothing. The age-old traditions of harvesting hemp and hand-dying the fibres with brilliant indigo dye take time and patience and this type of craftsmanship is losing its place in our world.
Réhahn’s mission when entering these areas of Vietnam is multi-dimensional. First, he speaks with the community, listens to their stories and their music and experiences their traditions firsthand. The photograph always comes second.
Everyone’s story is worth telling, and photographers have a unique medium with which to express that.
Sometimes the villagers will already be wearing their traditional costumes when the artist arrives and the colours, textures and details will naturally spark a photographic moment. Other times, the cultural dress that was so unique to each area will have been discarded in favor of pre-made clothing that is easier to attain and replace. In this case, Réhahn will ask the village chief to introduce him to families that may still have examples of the traditional costumes the tribe used to wear.
When he meets the village chief, Réhahn always explains his project: the photographs will be used in a museum to capture the tribe at this moment in history, their stories, music and traditional costumes will also be preserved and displayed in the museum in an effort to foster understanding and cultural exchange.
At times Réhahn’s subjects are shy to be photographed. They laugh and joke about being too old but when they are dressed in their traditional finery and the camera comes out a change often occurs. They have pride in their heritage and the beauty of their craftsmanship. They sometimes reveal to Réhahn that this heritage is something they wish to impart to the younger generations but they just don’t know how.
No one can deny that if there’s one characteristic of Vietnamese people that stands out, it’s that they are extremely resilient. They’ve managed to turn a largely traumatic history into a blossoming future.
However, adapting to the changing times has had an impact on the ethnic groups as well. Many young adults have left their villages to go and work in the major cities in search of a better future. While they end up creating new stories for themselves, there is also something left behind: their rich cultural heritage. Time never stands still and progress always comes with a price.
This knowledge of imminent change is part of what drove Réhahn to create Vietnam’s first Precious Heritage Collection.
Within the ethnic groups, especially amongst the tribal elders, there is an urgency to try to retain some of their heritage. This heritage can include written and unwritten languages, music, spoken tales, crafting techniques and other traditions. Each distinct tribe or subgroup have distinct variations that make them unique within Vietnam.
Below are a few examples of tribes whose traditions (and in some cases populations) may be diminishing as you read this.
The Second Smallest Ethnic Group in Vietnam
The Brau are an ethnic group living in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Brau live in the Dak Me village in Kon Tum province and they speak Brau, a Mon-Khmer language. In May 2016, Réhahn had the chance to meet them.
An interesting fact is that the Brau only have 2 family names: Thao (for males) and Nhang (for females). They have a “coming-of-age” custom of filing their four front teeth to be perfectly even. Women typically stretch their ears with heavy jewellery to create long, hanging earlobes. They also have their bodies tattooed; however, this is one of many dying customs.
There are only 397 Brau left in Vietnam (according to a 2009 census)! Dak Me is the last village in Vietnam where this ethnic group still lives. At the time that Réhahn visited nobody in the village was still able to make the traditional costumes.
The picture below illustrates how little meaning the costumes have now.
Encountering the Brau is part of what planted the seed in Réhahn’s mind of turning the Precious Heritage Collection into a Museum.
The O Du Ethnic Group
In July 2016, Réhahn had an opportunity to meet the O Du tribe, the smallest ethnic group in Vietnam. There are only about 500 O Du people worldwide. A little fewer than 200 have settled in Laos, while approximately 300 O Du live in Vietnam.
The O Du live in Tuong Dung district in Nghe An, a province in the central highlands. There’s virtually no information about this tribe available online, so Réhahn travelled to their tribal land with no idea about what to expect.
The O Du used to live in 3 different locations but in 2006 they were moved to one small city near Vinh in Nghe An province, close to Laos. They have 1 festival per year and only 5 original traditional costumes left.
One 78-year-old woman by the name of Vi Thi Dung is the last person able to make part of the O Du traditional costume in Vietnam, and she only has the techniques to make the skirt!
Despite the fact that the techniques for how to make the traditional costumes have largely been abandoned there is still a strong sense of cultural pride in evidence when interacting with the tribe.
According to Vi Thi Dung, the younger generations simply aren’t interested in learning how to make these costumes anymore. People have to cross the border into Laos if they want an original costume but they rarely do.
The O Du are influenced by the Thai and now speak fluent Viet and Thai. At the time of Réhahn’s visit, there were only 5 people left who could speak Phrom, the original O Du language, which is a branch of the Mon-Kho Me language. All 5 of these people were over the age of 70-years-old. No one is able to read or write it and there are absolutely no books left referencing it, making it almost impossible to learn the language anymore. This harsh reality means that this language’s time is running out fast. It could be wiped out in as little as 5 years.
Here she proudly sits at her sewing machine.
Progress To Preservation
These experiences, along with admiration and respect for the traditions of Vietnam’s diverse ethnic groups, spearheaded Réhahn’s feelings of necessity to make the Precious Heritage Collection a reality.
The nature of humanity is to keep progressing. But there comes a time in most people’s lives when we look back and want to know more about our heritage. What stories will be told about the incredible diversity of cultures present in Vietnam? Will it be tales of tall buildings and city life or will it be stories of green highlands, colourful traditions and a sense of cultural pride?