In 2011, renowned photographer Rehahn Croquevielle moved from his native France to Vietnam,
after the country captured his heart and his artistic eye. Since then, he’s become one of the most prominent portrait photographers in Vietnam and the world, with his photos featured in publications like National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveler. We caught up with Rehahn on the eve of his 5-country exhibition capturing Vietnam’s vanishing ethnic minorities to see what life is like capturing the smiles of Vietnam’s locals!
Q: What makes Vietnam such a great place to photograph? Tell us a little bit about your photographic love affair with the country.
Rehahn: Vietnam is an open air studio where each person is a potential model. Elderly women, children, farmers… we just have to open the eyes and interact with them. I discovered Vietnam in 2007, during a humanitarian trip. I fell in love with the old town of Hoi An, and in 2011, I decided to move and live here. I’m a portrait photographer, so it’s paradise for me here since it is the hot spot for many people, including tourists!
Q: You love taking photos of people in Vietnam – especially for your project Hidden Smiles. When everyone else seems to be taking photos of the scenery, what has you snapping shots of locals?
Rehahn: Hidden Smile is my biggest project, since I my goal is to collect 100 hidden smiles. No one has talked about this before – this habit of Vietnamese to hide their smile in a kind of bashfulness. I believe that wrinkles and the eyes are the real key to creating sparkling portraits.
Q: What do you think is the secret to taking great photos of people in Vietnam?
Rehahn: Timing and building a relationship are the secrets! Spending time with my model is the most important thing, as it’s almost impossible to catch a genuine emotion in only two minutes. I sometimes stay with a subject for two days, like a girl with blue eyes in South of Vietnam. Plus, many Vietnamese people love photography, and showing them the photo is also a good tip! The second shot is always better.
Q: Your Precious Heritage project focuses on the ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Why did you think this was an important project to undertake?
Rehahn: Only ten of the 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam still wear traditional dress. I have met about 30 of [these traditional groups], and within the past 3 years, have seen so many villages where people began wearing T-shirts and jeans rather than traditional clothing, and where elderly people didn’t even have their customary traditional dress for their festivals. It’s a vanishing culture – their lifestyles are changing, and with Precious Heritage, I want to record the last features of their traditional lives.
Q: You must have done your fair share of travel while working on your projects. What’s been your most memorable experience?
Rehahn: I always make sure I take the time to return to places I’ve been before, and I keep close contact with many subjects of my photos. I especially like to go to see them again to bring photos or my book. I’ve had so many good experiences, like meeting two elderly brothers in Ninh Binh – they had the longest beards I’d ever seen! I came back to give them my book last year and was invited to lunch and smoke the thuoc lao – a smoking water pipe famous in Vietnam. It was strong, and I nearly died! So they gave me rice alcohol to feel better, and it was worse! I went back to my hotel just after because I was too drunk.
Q: You’re about to embark on a 5-country tour, with exhibitions around Europe and North America. When you meet people at your exhibitions, what kinds of reactions do you get?
Rehahn: This month was the busiest of my career – I had exhibitions in Cuba, Toronto, Poland, Belgium and Versailles, France. I have had great feedback from visitors, and feel like I certainly made people more curious about visiting Vietnam. I already know that I will meet some of them soon in my Hoi An gallery. People always ask me about the way to capture emotions – and I’m often taking groups of photographers around Vietnam.
In September, I will take a group of 16 people to visit northern Vietnam, and once met a director of a major French company that fell in love with my photos. He asked me to take his group for a 7-day trip around Vietnam to teach them photography. I met him on the 30th of May, and four days later, the trip is already planned! People wants to meet my subjects, to see the Vietnam I show in the exhibition.
Q: Last but not least, what’s next for you? Which project are you eager to start?
Rehahn: My biggest project is my Hidden Smile exhibition, since it includes 100 photos on display introducing viewers to this special kind of Vietnamese happiness. I am planning to display the photos in public places in Hanoi – like around the Hoan Kiem Lake and West Lake, for example – or even moving to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), where I can display at the new walking street along Nguyen Hue. Of course, all these can be accomplished if I can have the help from many of my Vietnamese fans/followers, as well as my international fans.
Find out more about Rehahn’s portrait photography in Vietnam, as well as India, Borneo, Cuba – and many more countries around the world – at his website and portfolio. Meet the locals documented in his photography with customised, guided tours in Vietnam.