If every picture tells 1000 words, there must be millions of words to the stories of Hoi An-based photographer Rehahn.
It’s good to be Réhahn. This time last year, the Hoi An-based portrait photographer had about 6,000 Facebook fans. Thanks to a slew of press from the LA Times to National Geographic Online to dozens of Vietnamese TV appearances, magazines in Thailand, France and beyond and countless photography websites, he now has over 162,000 fans the world over.
A popular art/ photography website even included Réhahn on a list of the top 10 most famous portrait photographers in the world, alongside the likes of Steve McCurry and Lee Jeffries. Oi uncovers how this self-taught photographic storyteller burst onto the scene.
Success has come quickly for you considering you really only got into photography seriously three years ago.
Yes. I’ve had more than 70 interviews in the LA Times, National Geographic and many newspaper and magazines in Vietnam. I think I’ve been on national TV here 24 times already and have more appearances coming up. So, it’s good. I’m lucky.
When I look at photos from even four years ago, none of them could be in a gallery now. I really started to take photos when I moved to Vietnam three years ago. And to be honest, when my book [Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts] was published last January , everything changed. A few days ago, I looked at older photos in my hard drive and thought: “My God! How could I have taken that?” [laughs]
A series of photos you took of a young M’Nong girl near Buon Ma Thuot with her pet elephant also garnered worldwide attention recently. How did that happen?
I really believe in karma. Three years ago, I took a photo of a young Ede girl with big eyes that sold well.
I came back to meet her and give her a book and some money for her family. On the third and last day, I found someone who knew her. I was very touched when I saw her mother put the money on the table, instead focusing on the book. To her, it was more important than the money. All the neighbors and family were excited to see the book, too.
As we took a boat to the other side of the lake on the way back, I saw an elephant with a young girl and her younger brother. I tried not to make any noise, but the younger brother saw me and ran off, so I have no good photos of him. But the girl, when she saw me, she went close to the elephant and put her hand on it. A big animal with a little girl. We found her house close by. When we got there, the elephant was in the garden and we talked with her mother. I felt this photo was something special.
Once you’ve chosen a destination, what is your research process?
My last big trip was India last May. I typed “India” on Google Images to look for inspiration. I also check forums and specialized photography websites to see what I like, to get a feel about the country.
For example, with India, I saw many people with beards, with green eyes, a country perfect for portraits. When I travel, I usually just book my first hotel and travel light. Not quite backpacker but almost. Sometimes you have difficult moments, like when a train gets canceled at 2am and you have to sleep in a very hot train station with many people. But it’s part of the experience. Photographers are like writers and painters. We need inspiration, need to feel, need to be free in your mind. We need these kinds of experiences to make good photos.
Is there a secret to portrait photography?
Always try to make them smile. It’s not always possible, but the smile, the smile in the eyes is important, even if they’re covering their mouth. I like very old people with wrinkles and a beard that takes 30 years to grow. When you see a [photo of a] smile, you can’t explain the story behind it but you know something happened between the photographer and the model.
You know that it’s not just a snapshot. I like that, when there’s emotion in the photo. It’s more important than technical settings. For that, I’m not a “real” photographer, maybe. I’m self-taught, never had any training. What is a professional photographer? I don’t really know. Sometimes I don’t want to call myself a professional photographer because if it means talking all day about technical things, I don’t want to be one.
I just want to make people happy and feel something when they look at my photo. There are much better photographers than me, but if there are good settings but no emotion, no story, it’s not a good photo. Emotion is the first thing. If people feel something when they look at your photo, that’s what’s important.
You share your photos pretty generously on your Facebook page. And they’re not watermarked…
I had a marketing background in France M’Nong girl near Buon Ma Thuot with her pet elephant so that’s a big difference between me and other photographers. They are very good artists but don’t want to post too much online because of copyright. But we’re in the 21st century now. It’s hard to keep copyrights, so for me, I post on Facebook every day. Some photos get 26,000 likes. If each of those people had 50 friends, it’s a million people seeing that photo in 24 hours.
A Saigon travel agency used my photo without asking me. I contacted them and told them it was all right as long as they credited me, and they were very happy. In the end, no one wants to share online. They’re very good but no one knows them.
We’re all inundated with images now thanks to Instagram, facebook and the web in general. Is that a good or bad thing?
Well, just an example for Vietnam.
When I searched online for Vietnam in 2007, I only saw photos about the war. But now when I look at Google Images, I see very beautiful photos of Ha Long Bay. I guess it’s like that for many countries. There’s a big choice for photography and it’s very inspiring for me. Things go viral very quickly, too. Many people post and it’s good exposure for the photographer.
How has life in Vietnam changed you?
I first came to Vietnam in 2007 to spend three weeks with some children we were sponsoring. They lost their father a long time ago. I promised to come back every year. Every time, it became more and more difficult to leave. When I told my friends that I wanted to be a photographer, an artist, and move to Vietnam, they said: “Pshaw, Réhahn, don’t show off. You’re crazy. Why would you go there?”
French people are like that. They’re scared of everything. If I had listened to them, I would’ve stayed in France [where Réhahn had a printing business]. But I believe in myself. My wife believes in me.
I recently sold a print for USD10,000. I noticed that my friends [in France] didn’t comment at all on it. But in life, you shouldn’t listen too much to people. There are two kinds of people – losers and winners. Many people around us will always be afraid to do something. But if you believe in yourself, you can do it, and do it for a reason other than money.
Now, I’m very happy. I’m happy every day when I’m in Vietnam. I didn’t feel like that in France. I felt sick every Sunday night just thinking that I had to go to work on Monday. When I moved here it was a dangerous choice because my son was only one month old.
But I’m so happy with my choice. I was born again three years ago as a photographer. Every day, I take my motorbike across the rice fields for the 4 km from the beach to the city. My brother and father have joined me here. I have no more reason to go back to France.
I didn’t come to Vietnam to be rich, but for a lifestyle change. Now I’m lucky; everything is going well for the photos, for the gallery. [Réhahn also owns a restaurant and a homestay in Hoi An.] I feel like when you make your hobby a job, it’s very dangerous. You can lose your passion because when you need to earn money, you do things you don’t like and at the end of the day, aren’t motivated to take photos for yourself, to be inspired. I want to be a free photographer.
Out of your thousands of portraits, is there any one subject that has stayed with you?
It’s difficult to say. Maybe Xong, the 76-year-old woman on the cover of my book. She rows boats for tourists. In fact, from the window in the restaurant where I’m talking to you, I can see her boat from here. She’s still very happy to do that and doesn’t want to stop. That’s such a good lesson to learn about life. She’s 76 years old, still working, very poor, very old, but happy. The photo I took of her three years ago was one of my first sellable photos, so very special to me.
Last June, I bought her a boat. She deserves more than that. I sold many books thanks to her. I still see her every day. She always hugs me, touches me, touches my hair. She’s like a grandmother for me. She’s my very good friend now.
Selected photos from Réhahn will be exhibited at VinGallery (6 Le Van Mien, D2) from March 2-21, 2015.
Images courtesy of Réhahn