“LIFE is a long voyage and there’s something to celebrate in every stage of the experience along the way,” says French photographer Réhahn. That kind of thinking goes a long way to explaining the motivation behind his Ageless Beauty project, which focuses on an often ignored photographic subject: older people.
While much photography, from fine art to fashion and even travel photography, sometimes seems obsessed with youth and a specific, narrow definition of beauty, Réhahn feels that older people are just as worthy of being seen through a lens.
“People can have a much broader idea of what beauty means than what the Western press portrays,” he elaborates, adding, “Advertisements, magazines and movies tend to focus on what sells, which are beauty products, and youth itself. This is especially true when it comes to female beauty. For whatever reason, men seem to be allowed to age to a certain extent in Western ideals but women have much more pressure to stay young.”
“Photographers see beauty in a different way than most people,” he continues. “A great portrait isn’t only about technique but more about the stories they can tell. That comes from the colours of a person’s costume, their wrinkles, their eyes… What attracts my attention is less about physical ‘beauty’ and more about the spirit of the person.”
Réhahn, who turns 40 this year, is one of the most popular photographers currently working in Asia with nearly half a million Facebook followers and three successful books, including Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts, to his name. Known as the photographer who captures the “soul of his subjects” and going only by his first name, he’s a previous winner of the Los Angeles Times’ summer photography competition. His work has appeared in publications from National Geographic and Conde Nast Traveller to the BBC. One of his photos was even given recently to France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
Inspired by the likes of Steve McCurry and Sebastião Salgado, he has travelled the world, from India to Cuba. Originally from Bayeux in the French region of Normandy, he has been living in Hoi An on Vietnam’s coast since 2011, having fallen for the country on previous visits with the French NGO Enfants du Vietnam, through which he sponsored several children. He has set-up several museums in Vietnam, including the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum in Hoi An, a free cultural arts space that opened in 2017, dedicated to Vietnam’s ethnic groups and containing Réhahn’s photography, tribal clothing and other artefacts.
The museum goes hand in hand with his Precious Heritage project, an eight-year photographic quest to photograph all 54 of Vietnam’s tribal groups in 2011. So far, he has photographed members of 53 tribes, having recently travelled to the north to find some of the last few.
“Living in Vietnam gave me this great opportunity to start a long-term project,” he explains, adding: “I chose to be a photographer because of my love for people and culture. I have the possibility to go almost everywhere to research these people. I can stay a week with them and interview the chief of the village, chatting for hours, learning about their story, their culture, their traditions and textiles. The more you spend time with people, the more you’re able to capture their real personality in a photo.”
BEAUTY IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
There’s some overlap between Precious Heritage and Ageless Beauty, with the latter also drawing on his photos from travelling the length of Vietnam, as well as from his adopted home city of Hoi An. Ageless Beauty began four years ago, when he realised that many people shared his view that older people deserved far more than being ignored.
“It started at the moment my photograph Hidden Smile, featuring a lady called Madam Xong, entered the permanent collection of the Women’s Museum in Hanoi. Many people were touched by the laughter in the eyes of this elderly woman. The director of the museum has asked me to add to the museum’s collection with 35 other photographs that will now remain in the gallery for two years.”
Continuing, Réhahn elaborates: “I was inspired by the reaction to the portrait of Madame Xong. This portrait 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 how many people were hungry for a different definition of what beauty might mean.”
Réhahn’s adventures throughout the country have introduced him to unique cultural traditions and beliefs, as well as different ideas about beauty. “In the ethnic communities in Vietnam, there are also some interesting beauty traditions, such as the Brau and the Xtieng ethnic groups who stretch their ears with heavy earrings. Another tribe files down their four front teeth as a rite of passage into adulthood. There’s also a tribe that blackens their teeth; if their teeth are not black, they can’t get married.”
Many of his subjects have also felt they fell outside the standard idea of “beautiful” or “photogenic.”
“I’ve had many encounters with older people who’ve been surprised that I’m interested in taking their photo,” shares Réhahn, adding: “One woman even asked why I hadn’t come ‘when she was young and beautiful.’”
PATH IN LIFE
Réhahn’s photos range from children to seniors, and he doesn’t exclude young people. But he thinks it’s foolish not to also value older people. “I’m interested in photographing all types of things and people and faces. I do also have photographs of young people and children. What I find interesting are the stories of the people in the portraits. If there’s no story, then I’m not interested in simply shooting another pretty picture. I believe that there’s so much to learn from our elders and we can’t do that if we disregard them and allow them to become invisible.”
His time in Vietnam has also helped him to reconcile himself with his own inevitable ageing process. “Until I turned 32, I was scared to age,” he admits. “That changed when I decided to live in Vietnam and realised that I’d found my path in life. I think we’re all trying to figure out who we are, and maybe this is the reason we put so much pressure on ourselves when we reach certain ages.”
A pause and he continues: “But once you know who you are and where you’re going, it’s not a problem anymore. For me, the fear of ageing was not physical - it was mainly mental. I worried that I’d never find my life path and that I’d regret my choices one day. This is part of why I started to realise how many people are deeply concerned by ageing.”
Réhahn has struck up friendships with many of the people he’s photographed for Ageless Beauty and Precious Heritage. Some subjects, he says, have become like family. He visits them several times a year or they visit him at home in Hoi An. He’s more committed than most photographers to making sure that he isn’t the only person who benefits from his pictures, operating according to a Giving Back philosophy.
He gave Madam Xong, the original inspiration for Ageless Beauty and who appeared on the front cover of his first photography book on Vietnam, a rowing boat to help her in her business of transporting tourists around Hoi An. He’s close to the family of An Phouc, a girl with striking blue eyes that appears in another favourite photo, and has given the family a cow and bikes for the girls, as well as a camera for An Phouc’s sister, who wanted to become a photographer.
He has also paid for people’s education, medical bills or house repairs, and used sales from his galleries to fund the construction of a new museum for the Co Tu ethnic group in rural Tay Giang district, close to the Laos border.
“As an artist who sells his photographs, I have a responsibility,” he confides, adding: “I think it shows tribal people the interest that people can have in their culture and it gives them a sense of pride. These people are often poor and I want to use my galleries to help them. It isn’t always easy to find people that I’ve photographed. 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. But as a travel photographer, I wouldn’t be where I am without these people, so it feels fair for me to give something back.”
His Precious Heritage project is now nearly at an end, with just one tribe left to find and photograph. Even once it’s complete, Réhahn plans to keep meeting with Vietnam’s ethnic peoples and photographing them, so the project will continue to expand.
Ageless Beauty will also be a continuous, open-ended project. At the moment, it only features photos from Vietnam, but Réhahn is considering broadening it out to feature older people from around the world. There might in future even be an Ageless Beauty book.
“Why not? But if I do a book, I’d like it to be an in-depth reflection on the subject, not simply a collection of photographs. It may still be too early to do a book-length project. I still have a lot to learn and to perhaps gain some maturity and perspective. I’m starting to have white hair now, so perhaps it will soon be the right time, if wisdom comes along with it.”
FOR more on Réhahn’s Ageless Beauty and Precious Heritage projects, his museums or for prints of his work, visit www.rehahnphotographer.com/. Réhahn’s books include Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts (Vol 1 and 2) and The Collection: 10 years of photography. Follow him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/Rehahn.Photography/) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/rehahn_photography/).
Graeme Green is a UK journalist and photographer. See www.graeme-green.com