Photographer and gallery owner Réhahn has been based in Hoi An since 2011. In his latest body of work, his aim is to document all of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities. To Réhahn, this project is both a pleasure and a necessity.
“I realised that these peoples’ original traditions and customs would eventually disappear,” he says. “I wanted to preserve their culture and heritage for future generations.”
Before coming to Vietnam, Réhahn was a printer in his home country, France. He fell in love with photography during his travels in early 2007, on his first trip to Cuba. Regularly featured in the media, he is often referred to as the photographer who manages to capture his subjects’ souls.
“I like to meet the people I photograph,” he says. “I have made a lot of friends and learnt a lot about other cultures this way, and for this I am very grateful.”
The body of work he is gradually putting together is now being displayed in his recently opened Precious Heritage Gallery Museum in Hoi An.
Of all the tribes Réhahn has spent time with, he has felt a particular connection to the ones that were dwindling the fastest.
One of these is the Brau, a minority based in and around Dak Me Village in Kon Tum. They are the second smallest ethnic group in Vietnam.
“The Brau have an unusual custom of filing their teeth and straining their ears with heavy jewellery, to create long, large, hanging earlobes,” he says. “They use ivory or wood depending on their level of income.”
The Brau also used to have their bodies tattooed. “I was told that all the people who had their faces tattooed had sadly already died,” says Réhahn. “No one in the village makes their costume anymore.”
Réhahn visited another tribe, the Black Lo Lo, in 2013. This group migrated to Vietnam and Laos from China approximately 400 years ago. The Black Lo Lo use black as the main colour in their traditional costumes, and while the tradition is fading, many women still wore these garments when Réhahn met them.
When he travelled to find the Bo Y ethnic group two years later, Réhahn found himself lost in the labyrinth of local roads. “I had to ask a number of strangers to help me find my way,” he says. “Then my motorbike key got stuck in the ignition.”
Once there, the carefully embroidered patchwork, beading and detail of the Bo Y traditional dress stuck with Réhahn, as did the pride of the woman weaving them.
“She says she is the last one in her community that can make the costumes,” he recalls. “Looking at her work, one can’t help but feel that her history is sewn into each detail.”
More Than Photography
Passionate about preserving this history, Réhahn believes that the people of a community are the foundations of their own unique traditions. His documentation is largely in the form of photography, but he also preserves physical artifacts from different tribes such as costumes, jewellery and pipes.
He unveiled The Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum on the Jan. 1, 2017 in the quieter Old French Quarter of Hoi An. It holds the culmination of five years’ work with Vietnam’s ethnic peoples, with text in French, English and Vietnamese.
Inspired by the captivating stories and glowing cultural pride of the ethnic elders he had met, and saddened by their younger generations’ lack of interest, Réhahn felt driven to document the tribes before it was too late.
“I believe that one of the reasons there is little thought about cultures disappearing in some regions is because that culture isn’t valued outside that community,” he says. “But Vietnam is so rich in cultural diversity. I think it’s important to be proud of that heritage.”
Photos by Réhahn