“I don’t think it would be fair to make a living selling photos without trying to help the people that I photograph,” says travel photographer Réhahn. Graeme Green speaks to the man on a serious mission to give something back.
“I’m a ‘people person’,” says French travel photographer Réhahn. “I always spend a lot of time with the men and women in my pictures before taking their photo. Without them, of course, there wouldn’t be any photos.”
It’s this appreciation of the people in his pictures that lies behind his ‘Giving Back’ philosophy. Originally from Bayeux in Normandy, France, Réhahn has been living in Hoi An, a town on the central coast of Vietnam, since 2011, and become famous for his colorful portraits, taken in his adopted homeland and around the world.
Sometimes referred to as ‘the photographer who captures the soul’ of his subjects, his photos have earned him an impressive international following, including 483,000 Facebook followers. He’s published three books of his photography, including two on Vietnam, and his work is exhibited around the world, with shows from Singapore to France.
But he believes photography shouldn’t be a one-way process in which only the photographer benefits. And that’s why Réhahn has chosen a different path.
“We sometimes take pictures of people who are in economic situations that are at the opposite end of ours, and I think we ought to be fair,” explains Réhahn. “As a photographer specializing in travel portraits, I wouldn’t be here today without these people. For me, it’s totally normal to give something back.”
He isn’t alone. Many photojournalists use their work to raise awareness and help people, from refugees to victims of violence, while other photographers use sales of prints or books to raise money for charities working to help build hospitals and schools, to save animals or protect the environment.
Réhahn has previously given a rowing boat to Madam Xong, a Vietnamese woman who featured in his ‘Hidden Smile’ photo and appeared on the cover of his first book Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts. Madam Xong’s own boat was old and badly worn; the new boat helped her continue making her living, transporting tourists around Hoi An. He has also helped individuals and families by paying for education, medical bills and home repairs.
At first, An Phuoc’s family wasn’t keen on me taking pictures, but by putting aside the camera and getting to know each other, we created a real bond.”
Currently working on a long-term project entitled ‘Precious Heritage’ to photograph all of Vietnam’s 54 tribes, Réhahn has photographed people from 49 of those tribes so far, with plans to visit more in 2019. He also recently established his Precious Heritage Gallery Museum in Hoi An, which contains his photos of these tribes. As well as preserving tribal costumes and artefacts, he’s used gallery sales to pay for the construction of a new museum in the Tay Giang district for the Co Tu ethnic group.
The people he photographs often become “friends or like family”, he says. The relationship he’s formed with one family in particular demonstrates how he spreads the benefits of his work. “I’ve met 49 out of the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam,” Réhahn tells me. “I love them all but I had a very special time with the family of An Phuoc, a seven-year-old girl from the Cham tribe who has incredible blue eyes.”
“At first, An Phuoc’s family wasn’t keen on me taking pictures,” he says. “But by putting aside the camera and getting to know each other, we created a real bond. We spoke about their culture and they shared stories with me about their lives. I came back another day and proposed to help the family.”
Réhahn soon found out that Sapa, An Phuoc’s older sister, wanted to be a photographer, so he bought her a camera. “They’re now in my Giving Back project because the picture of An Phuoc is one of my bestselling photos,” he says. “I bought a cow for the family and bikes for the girls. I visit them three times a year and I also invited them to stay in my house in Hoi An twice last year.”
Should more photographers give something back to their subjects? “That’s every individual’s choice,” says Réhahn. “I honestly don’t want to judge other photographers, as I don’t know what they really do with their photos or how they help communities. Some people do it, but they don’t always show what they do, so it’s difficult to judge.
“Of course, if we make money from a picture, then the subject deserves to get paid. But if it’s a travel photograph, giving a smile or exchanging a few words is often enough to make the moment warm-hearted and sincere.”
“I remember seeing that Steve McCurry bought a house in Kabul for Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed ‘Afghan Girl’ that he photographed, and I know a few colleagues who support the NGOs in the countries where they work. It’s not always easy to find people to give something to them.
“Sometimes I’ve spent days looking for subjects who I met two or three years ago along a road in the north of Vietnam, without success,” he recalls. “But I don’t think it would be fair to make a living selling photos without trying to help the people that I photograph.”
Paying people to take their picture can be a complicated issue, though. It can sometimes distort local cultures, leading to people standing on streets in ‘traditional’ costumes to pose or perform for tourists. Is it right to pay people to photograph them?
“It depends on the circumstances,” says Réhahn. “I don’t believe it’s necessary to transform every photo into a commercial transaction. But many photographers are making money and argue that giving money to people is getting them used to asking for things. This could be true, but some people hide behind that excuse to never give anything.”
Many photographers who are less successful than Réhahn, including professionals, Instagrammers or camera-carrying tourists, won’t have the profits or resources to buy generous gifts. But giving back isn’t just about money, Réhahn argues; it can also be about giving time and respect.
“For me, it’s about establishing a respectful relationship with the person you’re photographing, so that they don’t feel like an object. Of course, if we make money from a picture, then the subject deserves to get paid. But if it’s a travel photograph, giving a smile or exchanging a few words is often enough to make the moment warm-hearted and sincere.
“It’s a very personal question for all photographers about how they could give something back to the people they photograph,” he concludes. “It differs for every person and the way they practise their art. But it’s always possible to give the subjects a copy of their picture to make it a memorable moment.”