We meet the French photographer whose images are really making a difference to people’s lives

In the far North of Vietnam lies the mountainous town of Sapa. A carpet of lush green, terrace rice paddy fields cling to the hillsides, only to be separated by babbling brooks, waterfalls, and thatched cottages. But while the countryside is dramatic, it is the people who caught the eye of renowned French photographer Rehahn, 38.
Walking through the town, selling their wares, the Black H’Mong and Red Dao people, stand out from the backpacking Europeans. With silver combs in their hair or a red cotton scarf piled on top of their heads and embroidered tendrils framing their faces, the H’Mong and Dao women look more like couture models than farmers. When Rehahn was told by his friend that these were just two of the 54 ethnic groups that could be found in Vietnam, the photographer was intrigued and he started to research the groups and visit their villages to try and capture the differences in their culture.

While they may sell trinkets to tourists, they often live far outside of the towns. Caring for their buffalos, they don’t tend to stray far from their homeland. So this meant that the photographer had to fill his motorbike full of gas and go and find them.

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Rehahn would ride along dirt tracks, punctuated only by small villages, before he would have to leave his bike behind and carry his camera equipment through waterfalls, over rivers before trekking for the last few hours to reach the ethnic village. But what started to surprise him was even here in the highland villages, that Facebook and Nike has managed to take hold. He wondered how long it would be before their culture disappeared altogether.

Rehahn set himself the task of photographing and recording the dialects of all 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam

When he chatted to the chiefs of the villagers as his friend interpreted, Rehahn could see that they were also concerned that their culture might one day fade, and what made them different could disappear. So Rehahn decided to set himself the task of photographing and recording the dialects of all 54 ethnic groups, learning about their history and listening to tales of their legends. He met the O Du tribe of 376 people, near Vinh, where only 10 people still spoke their ancient dialect and the M’nong people near the Laos border whose animist beliefs led them to celebrate all life and hold annual weddings for elephants.

At each meeting he was usually plied with green tea and rice wine, and then at the end the chief of the village would often present him with one of the handmade costumes as a keepsake.

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When Rehahn first started the project, he was an amateur photographer who ran a bed and breakfast and co-owned a restaurant in Hoi An. But when he started to exhibit his works in the restaurant, they instantly caught people’s attention. His intimate shots of the people of Vietnam were soon being exhibited in France and printed in National Geographic, Conde Nast Traveller and Forbes. He was already quite clearly a master in fine art photography.

But rather than keep the sales of the photographs to himself, he took the unique step of giving back to his muses. The cover star of his book Madam Xong received a new boat, which replaced the rickety craft that she used to ferry tourists along the waterways of Hoi An, and other families had all their children’s school fees paid for and homes rebuilt after storm damage.

But Rehahn’s life had changed dramatically since arriving in Hoi An so he wanted to do more. With the costumes in his studio that he said deserved to be in a museum, he decided to do just that and turned a decrepit villa in Hoi An into the Precious Heritage Collection Museum. The UNESCO protected building would house the keepsakes, photographs and recordings of the groups that he had met.

Rehahn museum

When he was about to launch the museum the city was beset by storms and the rivers broke their banks. Rehahn’s team were able to save the artefacts in time – including an ancient costume made from tree bark from the Co Tu people, but they still had the cope with the debris the flood waters left behind.

On 1 January 2017 the portrait photographer opened the museum and received 100 visitors on the first day. Guests wandered through the ochre-painted rooms, to see glass-fronted cases of handmade ethnic jewellery, photographs and the richly embroidered handmade costumes on display.

It took seven years for the French photographer to get to this point, but as the country is about to undergo a sea change, with the creation of a mini Silicon Valley in Da Nang and the arrival of Formula 1 in Hanoi, Rehahn believes that his work couldn’t have come at a more important time. He says that you can’t expect people not to change, or modernise, he was just pleased that he had the chance to document the changes.

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