French photographer desires to preserve Vietnam’s ethnic culture

During the last two years, French photographer Rehahn C has spent a lot of time traveling to remote areas in Vietnam to capture photos depicting ethnic culture which he said “is fading away so fast.”

Based in the central tourism town of Hoi An, the 36-year-old man has had his pictures featured in reputable journals like National Geographic and Vogue Italy.

At the end of 2014, he was voted among the 10 most famous portrait photographers in the world by the global online art, design and photography community boredpanda.com.

Two years, 30,000 photos

The man, who has lived in Vietnam for more than four years, could spend hours talking about his knowledge of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities and is able to list without any hesitancy the names of many minority groups, including Lo Lo, Bo Y, Ta Oi, Co Tu, Pa Then, Dao Man, Phu La, San Chi, and more.

With an obvious pride, Rehahn said he has met more than 40 minority groups in Vietnam and is able to speak a little ethnic language.

To the photographer, a country with 54 ethnic groups living together is an interesting theme to explore.

“Only Dong Van has up to 14 different ethnic groups living around,” Rehahn told Tuoi Tre News.

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During the past two years, Rehahn has traveled throughout 35 cities and provinces in Vietnam, capturing around 30,000 photos, including 9,000 pictures taken only in 12 days in September.

The results of those years were pooled in his latest photo book, “Vietnam - Mosaic of Contrast II,” featuring roughly 160 photos.

This is a sequel to his first book, “Vietnam - Mosaic of Contrast,” released last year.

Rehahn said the first book consists of photos he took via the lens of a French “tourist” during his first years in Vietnam, while those in the second were snapped by a more “local” photographer when he has a deeper understanding of the country and its people.

“I feel like I was born again here,” Rehahn told Tuoi Tre News.

“I know that I’m very lucky because I’m successful and I can do what I love. Vietnam gives me that, so I have to give something back,” he said, adding that the best thing he could do is take photos to keep cultural and historical features of the country.

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“I also want to show tourists that Vietnam has many things to explore,” he added. “We shouldn’t continue letting tourists not go back because of scams, because they have some troubles with xe om or have to pay for an expensive banh mi.”

The man from Hoi An said the second book describes his days traveling on a motorbike to more remote areas with fewer people, in order to find and meet ethnic people who seem to live separately from the world.

Rehahn said he once had to cancel a journey to find the Co Lao people in the northern province of Ha Giang’s Hoang Su Phi District because the road was too treacherous.

There were also trips where he got into accidents, or got back to his hotel at 2:00 am, sometimes with mud covering him from top to toe and the man having to pay for the hotel’s towels because it was impossible to clean them up.

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Fear of culture fading away

In his photos of ethnic people, Rehahn has put his heart into their traditional costume.

He said there are fewer and fewer ethnic people wearing their traditional costume, or they even do not have the costume at home.

“Last year I came to Quang Ngai and met the Co people,” Rehahn said. “I went to many villages and nobody had the costume. ‘Even for the festival?’ I asked and got shocked when they said, ‘We don’t have that.’”

“I found one lady in the end and asked her to wear the costume for photos. She said they don’t really want to keep the costume. They don’t care so this means in your life you will never see someone with this costume. And I will probably never see it again,” he said.

According to Rehahn, ethnic people are caring less for their tradition and that is what he fears as well as the main reason for him to find and take photos of those cultural features which he is afraid of not being able to see again.

“Some years ago, I saw the White Thai wearing their traditional costume in Mai Chau and now I cannot find one there,” he said. “I went to the market and saw that they sold the costume and the sellers were wearing jeans. It’s nonsense.”

“Once I went to see the Pu Peo group, there’s only one woman in the village who was seventy-three, knowing how to make their traditional costume,” Rehahn recounted.

“Young girls don’t want to learn that so they don’t care. It means when she dies, no one will make the costume of Pu Peo, and there are only 1,000 of them in Vietnam. “

In the next two years, maybe the M’nong or Dao will still wear their costume but the Nung, Thai, Pu Peo, Bo Y, Pa Then, Co Tu have gradually stopped wearing it, he added.

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He rode his motorbike into holes of mud several times as well.

However, the passion for capturing ethnic people living under their roof, wearing their traditional costume, and doing their daily jobs has kept urging him to go on with his Vietnam adventure.

He has so far taken around 25,000 photos of ethnic people in the Southeast Asian country.

In a bid to preserve and promote Vietnamese ethnic culture, the photographer who runs a gallery in Hoi An is currently collecting traditional costumes of Vietnam’s ethnic groups to prepare for the Mekong-themed Caen International Fair, to be held in September this year in Caen, France, his hometown.

Rehahn said after talking to him, the organizers decided to invite him to introduce Vietnam through his photos.

The photographer plans to leave a deep Vietnamese impression on about 200,000 visitors to the 10-day event by displaying 25 ethnic costumes at his booth to promote the culture of his second homeland.

Tuoitrenews