Rehahn first visited Vietnam in 2007. Together with his wife he had been supporting two young girls in Hoi An through a French non-governmental organisation, and with a break in work they decided it was an ideal opportunity to finally meet them.
Falling in love with the girls and the historic beauty of the ancient city he promised to return each year. The first trip back was for two weeks, the second a month, the third for two months and then a more permanent move began to make sense.
Rehahn and his wife started their new life in Hoi An the following year. With money from the sale of his company, he bought a plot of land, put it in the two girls’ names and built a house for their family to run as a homestay. As he continued to explore the city and its surrounds he took his camera with him, capturing the familiarly cliched scenes of exotic Vietnam that many visitors take.
Shortly after arriving in Vietnam, Rehahn was invited to visit Sapa, and keen to photograph more of the country’s natural beauty he took his camera with him. Foggy weather prevented him from taking photos of the landscape and instead he took shots of the local people, captivated by the colour and embroidery of their traditional costumes.
Fascinated by what he had seen, Rehahn returned to Hoi An to further research about the ethnic peoples of Vietnam, visiting nearby groups in Hue and Dalat to take more photos of their elaborate traditional clothing. “I imagined opening a museum to showcase their different costumes and document their stories before they disappear,” Rehahn explained. And so the Precious Heritage Project was born.
To help fund the project he started selling his photos, and in 2016 travelled to France with 20 costumes telling the stories of 20 Vietnamese tribes. The following year he opened his first free museum in Hoi An, displaying costumes from 42 of the country’s 54 ethnic peoples, a collection funded entirely by sales of his photos.
Conscious photography and giving back
As cliched as it may sound, Rehahn believes deeply that what goes around comes around, and like many photographers he struggles with the question of whether he should pay his photographic subjects or not. Each portrait he takes has a story behind it, and ultimately the people who buy his photos are also buying the story.
His Giving Back project helps him balance his conscience and build a personal connection between him and his models. He knows the name of each portrait model, visiting those in Vietnam at least once a year and those in India and Cuba whenever he can. The Giving Back project is not about just handing over money, but about continuing the connection with people who are part of his success.
From the sales of his photos he pays school fees for children, buys cows for families, boats for fishermen or repairs houses damaged in storms. He has covered funeral costs, paid for urgent surgery, bought bicycles for mothers and shared countless meals with models who are now friends. Each person whose portrait is taken has a phone number to contact him with, and a close personal relationship that allows them to call.
His give-back this year is another museum, close to the Laotian border where he visited the Co Tu tribe. Whilst learning their history, the village elders expressed regret that the younger generation had little interest in their culture and traditions, and concern that this heritage soon be lost.
The museum is set to be completed in September 2018, away from the tourist trail and there simply as a place where the younger generation can find answers when they wonder where they came from.
Fine art photography collection
Fine art collection has never been more popular in Vietnam, but the market is rife with fakes. Collecting photographic prints is increasingly being seen as a safer option by high-end collectors, keen to safeguard their investments as well as limit the embarrassment of on-selling an image that is later found to be fake.
Gallery Couleurs d’Asie by Rehahn in Ho Chi Minh City houses Rehahn’s fine art collection, featuring some of his portraits from Cuba, India and Vietnam. Confounding many who believed there is no market for photography in Vietnam, Rehahn has found a way to make his photos collectable with limited editions printed on imported, cutting-edge metallic paper.
Through an interplay of transparency and multiple reflections, the metallic paper lends his photos an intense warmth and depth, becoming a true sensation for the eye.
Restricting each print to just 15 copies, the metallic paper holds the image’s strength whereas other papers get weaker with time – when you’re spending thousands of dollars on a photo you don’t want it to fade. Collectors want something unique, so a limited number are printed, and with each print sold the price increase for the next. Metallics start at $1,500 USD for a print size of 90×60, with a bigger size at $3,000 USD for 150×100
With many more Vietnamese now buying photos the country is the biggest market in Southeast Asia. Part of Rehahn’s popularity is the five-star customer service he provides to over 200 serious collectors worldwide. If the photo you buy gets damaged, he will replace it. If you are moving overseas he will send a new, unframed print to your new destination.
As the Vietnamese market expands, expat collectors continue to enjoy a growing second market for his limited-edition photos. In December 2017 a copy of his iconic image of Madam Xong sold to a collector for $30,000 USD, making it the most expensive photo ever sold in Vietnam.
Couleurs d’Asie by Rehahn
Located on Dong Khoi Street down the Art Arcade, turning right up the stairs next to L’Usine Café, Couleurs d’Asie by Rehahn celebrated its first-year anniversary on June 1, 2018. With its location in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the Saigon Opera House and surrounded by five-star hotels and restaurants, the gallery has proven the market for his work in Vietnam, welcoming more than 1,000 guests on its opening day.
Displaying his photos from India and Cuba as well as Vietnam, the gallery’s fine art room houses his collection of metallic photos, with smaller prints, postcards and books displayed in the gallery’s second room.
The metallic paper accentuates the colours in his photos, bringing out the magic in each image and capturing the characters of his models.
Still travelling and shooting regularly, there are constantly new images on display, and Rehahn visits the gallery monthly to meet regular customers and introduce the latest prints before the price jumps. It’s best to buy early.