Born in 1979, French photographer Rehahn had visited over 35 countries, before he decided to settle down in Hoi An, Vietnam at the age of 32. And it is here that he started his pursuit of philosophy of Conscious Photography and Karma, wherein ‘the sum of a person’s actions in this and in previous states of existence decides their fate in future existences.’
Unlike many professional photographers, whose connect with the subjects gets over after the photograph is displayed or applauded or published or sold, Rehahn contemplates on how he can better the wellbeing of the people whom he photographs—this can range from assistance by way of medical care, to equipment related to the subject’s trade, to education.
That is why he is termed as someone who ‘captures the souls of his models’, (Wanderlust Travel Magazine, 2018). In Vietnam, Rehahn ensures that he gives back to the people who inspired him and helped him make a name in the photography world. In this way, Rehahn closes the circle of Karma.
The opening of the circle, so to speak, began with capturing the image of a 74-year old woman, Bui Thi Xong, in her old boat, who was featured on the cover of Rehahn’s first book Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts. To elaborate and quote from his website: Rehahn and Madame Xong’s story began in the summer of 2011 in Hoi An in Central Vietnam. At this time, Rehahn 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.
Xong later became one of the most well-known faces in Vietnam, featuring in more than two-hundred published articles worldwide. So much so, she was also featured in The Vietnamese Women’s Museum to represent the strength, kindness and hard work of the women of Vietnam.
While photographing her, Rehahn discovered that her deepest desire was to own a new boat which tourists would enjoy riding in. He assured her that if his book was a success, he would return and buy her a new boat!
The book Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts published in January 2014 was an international best-seller in 29 countries. More importantly, Rehahn fulfilled his promise to Xong and gifted her a new boat in the same year. Today her magnetic face 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 book, Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts was followed by a Volume II in 2015 and Volume III in 2020. Some of his other books were The Collection, 10 Years of Photography, Faces of Rajasthan, Children of Vietnam and 100 Iconic Portraits.
The uniqueness of Rehahn’s portraits of Vietnam, Cuba and India represent a fusion of documentary style and fine art photography, which tell a story based on his insightful experience of the culture, diversity and changing traditions—they are not just lovely images. Even a cursory glance transports the viewer to an authentic world replete with people interactions, their smiles, their wisdom, their daily lives.
Rehahn is also credited with the collection in the ‘Precious Heritage Museum’ located in the ancient town of Hoi An, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. He travelled hundreds of miles for nine years, often on his bike, documenting 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam. The project’s aim was to document and share the cultural heritage and stories of each group as well as to preserve specimens of their varied traditional costumes. The Museum comprises more than 100 photographs, 62 traditional wardrobe ensembles and spans 5 rooms and 500 sq.m. Most of the costumes were given to Rehahn by the chief of each village.
Rehahn’s fine art photography collections are exhibited at his four Couleurs by Rehahn galleries. Two are located in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hoi An, and two are in Saigon, one on the historic Dong Khoi Street and the second in the InterContinental Saigon hotel.
As ‘the photographer who captures the soul’ of his subjects, his photos have earned him an impressive international following, including 483,000 Facebook followers; and he is featured by some of the most prominent photography magazines such as the National Geographic, Foto Digital, Times (London), Los Angeles Times, Géo magazine, Globe Trotter Mag where his photo made it to the front cover.
Some of his signature photographs which are instantly recognizable worldwide include Hidden Smile, An Phuoc, Best Friends—in fact in December 2014, Réhahn was ranked 4th among the top 10 best travel photographers in the world by the website boredpanda.com. Rehahn has been featured in more than 500 articles and interviews and over 50 television appearances globally. Some of the publications include The New York Times, BBC, National Geographic, South China Morning Post, and Der Spiegel.
In a November 2018 interview with Graeme Green for Adventure.com, Rehahn said, ‘I’m a ‘people person. I always spend a lot of time with the men and women in my pictures before taking their photo. Without them, of course, there wouldn’t be any photos… We sometimes take pictures of people who are in economic situations that are at the opposite end of ours, and I think we ought to be fair. As a photographer specializing in travel portraits, I wouldn’t be here today without these people. For me, it’s totally normal to give something back.’
As a testimony to his commitment, Rehahn’s website updates the Xong story thus: 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 of 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.
Siddharth Kumar is the Co-Founder & Lead Photographer SIDART Photography, a professional photography venture focusing on weddings, portraiture and commercial photography. After an 8-year stint in an MNC, he decided to pursue his passion for photography and music. In 2019, he was awarded Certificate of Honorable Mention by International Photography Awards (IPA), Los Angeles. In 2014, he won the First Prize at the International Photography Competition organized by Mindshare Worldwide. He holds a Grade 8 Certificate in Piano Performance from Trinity College London.