If there’s ever a man who makes you want to quit your job and buy a one way plane ticket, it’s Réhahn. Born in Normandy, his passion for travel and photography has taken him on a worldwide adventure. Specialising in portrait photography, Réhahn is different in the way he engages with his models; spending time with them before shooting, in order to try and capture the soul of his subject. Recognised as one of the best portrait photographers in the world, his work has featured in the likes of LA Times, Conde Nast Traveller and National Geography magazine. I was thrilled, honoured and overwhelmed when Réhahn agreed to talk to me all the way from his gallery in Hoi An. Whether you are an aspiring photographer, or need a little travel inspiration, read on.
First things first, how did you get to where you are today? Where did your interest in portrait photography develop from?
In 2007, I came to Vietnam to visit two little girls I was sponsoring in Hoi An. I was already a photographer but it was not the purpose of my trip, but I fell in love with the country, the people and of course this family. I came back every year until 2011 when I finally decided to settle down in the charming town of Hoi An. It was then I realised that I was living in an open-air studio where each person is a potential model. I always had a passion for photography and for people – I’m a people person and enjoy spending time with locals. The story behind the photos is what interests me most.
What qualifications or training did you receive?
I’m a self taught photographer and I’ve had the chance to live in Vietnam where I can practise at anytime. I’m also a perfectionist, so I sometimes read articles online and follow master photographers like Steve McCurry or Sebastio Selgado.
What made you decide to travel and why Vietnam?
I was interested in the history of the country and its incredible diversity – 56 ethnic groups live here. It’s a big source of inspiration.
What are the secrets to taking a portrait?
I think the key is the time. You can get anything you want if you spend time and try to connect with people. I always try to stay at least twenty minutes when I meet a good model. The longest time I spent with a model was three days, when I met the blue eyed girl from the Cham ethnic group on the Central Coast of Vietnam. I stayed with her family, we became very good friends and they often come to Hoi An to visit me. You can’t get something natural in two minutes and connecting with people can require more time in remote areas.
Do you get your subjects to pose, or do you aim to capture them in their natural surroundings?
Actually I think that the photo after the pose is often the best one. So yes, I make them pose a little bit and I show them the photo. They smile, laugh or say ‘xau qua’ (meaning ugly) and I capture their natural expression at this moment. That’s the way I do it - I also never take a photo if someone refuses.
What is the most interesting part of your job?
Discovering cultures and meeting different people. I keep in touch with many of my subjects and I feel I have friends everywhere in Vietnam. It’s fascinating how photography can make such a connection between people. When I was young, I was very shy and have completely grown out of this now thanks to my photography.
What is your biggest challenge?
Now the biggest challenge is managing my time. I want to see so many places in Vietnam but also all over Asia. I have up to ten exhibitions a year, plus my books to promote – I’ve had more than 500 articles, interviews and TV appearances in two years, it takes up a lot of my time!
Have you got a photo or series of photos you are particularly proud of – if so, why?
I love my ‘Hidden Smiles’ series. It’s a collection of 100 photos of Vietnamese women covering their mouth while smiling. It shows the smile through their sparkling eyes – it’s unique! I’m preparing a book about the Vietnamese smile and it will be a big honour for me to share their joy of living to the world.
They are beautiful photos! What advice would you give someone hoping to follow in your footsteps?
You will be surprised, but it would be to focus on marketing and social media. I have 300,000 fans on Facebook and thanks to that I have sold more than 4,000 books without publishers. This allows me to earn a living from my hobby. Without exposure it’s almost impossible to survive. Also, it’s important to keep your ego under control – the model should always be the most important person on the shoot.
Finally then, if you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be and why?
Another one that might surprise you, but I would like to photograph Fidel Castro and smoke a cigar with him. This answer may shock people, but I’m very interested in the history of the last century and this man has seen so much in his life. More than ten American presidents have passed, but he is still here.
If you are interested in picking up a camera and learning more about portrait photography, why not take a look at some of the courses listed on the site. Whether you are a complete beginner, or photography pro, we are sure we’ll have something to get your creative juices flowing!