Réhahn has a big passion for elders and their wrinkles. It isn’t a passion that all photographers share. In many kinds of photography, especially fashion and advertising, youth is seen as the only subject that matters. For French travel photographer Réhahn, though, older people are such a source of fascination that he’s working on a dedicated photographic project called Ageless Beauty.
“What attracts my attention is less about physical ‘beauty’ and more about the spirit of the person,” he explains. “I look for sparkling eyes, smiles …” Réhahn is originally from Bayeux in the French region of Normandy, but has been living in Hoi An on Vietnam’s coast since 2011, where he opened his Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum, a free cultural arts space dedicated to Vietnam’s ethnic groups.
Known as “the photographer who captures the soul” of his subjects’ and operating under just his first name, he’s a previous winner of the Los Angeles Times’ summer photography competition and has gone on to become one of the most successful photographers working in Asia, with nearly half a million Facebook followers.
His photography has appeared everywhere from National Geographic to the BBC, and he has produced three books. A copy of his Hidden Smile picture of Vietnamese woman Madam Xong was recently presented to French president Emmanuel Macron.
For the last eight years, Réhahn has been travelling across Vietnam by motorbike, tracking down all 54 of the country’s ethnic groups or tribes to photograph them for his ambitious Precious Heritage project.
Many of these pictures, as well as others from Hoi An, feature in Ageless Beauty. “This passion for photographing older people developed since I started the Precious Heritage project, documenting the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam in their traditional costumes,” Réhahn explains. “Only elders still wear the traditional costumes, so when I enter the village, I have to seek them out if I want to see and learn about these ancient cultures.”
Ageless Beauty was kick-started into action properly four years ago. “It started when my photograph Hidden Smile, featuring Madam Xong, entered the permanent collection of the Women’s Museum in Hanoi. I was inspired by the reaction to the portrait, which quickly became one of my most famous photographs. Madam Xong has now graced the pages of hundreds of international magazines, newspapers and websites. It made me realise how many people were concerned by ‘age’ and that so many people were hungry for a different definition of what ‘beauty’ might mean.”
The standard international definition of “beauty” is too narrow, Réhahn argues. “I believe people are capable of having a much broader idea of what beauty means than what the press often portrays,” he says. “Adverts, magazines, and movies focus mainly on what sells, which is beauty products, and youth itself. This is particularly true for female beauty, for some reason. Women often seem to be under far more pressure than men to stay young.”
Travelling around Vietnam, Réhahn has found many ethnic groups have their own traditional ideas about beauty. “There are some fascinating beauty traditions. The Brau and the Xtieng ethnic groups, for example, stretch their ears with heavy earrings. There’s another a tribe that blackens their teeth – if the person’s teeth are not black, they can’t get married.”
Réhahn has now photographed 53 of the country’s 54 tribes, and is currently working to secure permits to visit the final tribe and complete his Precious Heritage project. Meanwhile, Ageless Beauty will be an ongoing, open-ended project, with Réhahn thinking about expanding it beyond Vietnam to include photos from some of the other countries where he works, such as India and Cuba.
Throughout his work, Réhahn makes sure he gives something back to the people he photographs. He gave Madam Xong, who appeared on the front cover of his first photography book on Vietnam, a rowing boat to help her with her business of ferrying tourists around Hoi An. He visits the family of An Phouc, a girl from the Cham ethnic group with bright blue eyes who has featured in some of his best-loved photographs, several times each year, and has given the family a cow, bikes, and a camera. He has also paid for medical bills, schooling, or house repairs for several subjects.
“I think we sometimes take pictures of people who are in economic situations at the opposite end of ours and that we ought to be fair,” he explains. “Many of the people in my photos have become friends or like family. As long as we’re doing business with these photos, either sales of prints, for magazines or photo tours, giving something back should be done automatically.”
Réhahn has spent time in various parts of Vietnam looking for people he previously photographed, hoping to meet them again, to give them a gift, even if it’s simply a copy of the photograph he took of them. This is true, too, for many of the older people he has spent time with and photographed for Ageless Beauty. “Many of my subjects joke about being ugly or not worthy of a photograph,” he says. “It’s very important for me to return when their portrait is ready and present it to them. Seeing their reactions to their portraits is an unforgettable moment.”
For more on Réhahn’s projects, his museums, or for prints of his work, visit rehahnphotographer.com