Portraits of Ageless Beauty with Travel Photographer Réhahn

8 March 2019

Travel photography can offer a tantalising glimpse into hidden worlds, spotlighting diverse cultures and bringing a fresh perspective to conventional norms.

French photographer Réhahn has been documenting the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam for the last ten years, travelling to often remote villages and meeting the elders to hear the unique history of each tribe.  During these trips, the photographer was struck by the beauty of the Vietnamese elder women who he found not only incredibly strong, having worked hard throughout their lives, but also warm, generous and funny.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Graeme Green talks to Réhahn about his Ageless Beauty series and the women he met along the way…

Many photographers ignore older people in favour of youthful ‘beauty’. Why are you so interested in older people?

In my opinion, a great portrait is one that you will always remember. It’s about eyes and stories they can tell.

I have a big passion for elders and their wrinkles. Probably, that passion has developed since I started my Precious Heritage project where I’m currently documenting the 54 ethnic groups of Vietnam in their traditional costumes. Only elders still wear the traditional costumes, so when I enter each village, I have to look for them if I want to see and learn about ancient cultures.

When did the Ageless Beauty project begin?

It began four years ago when my Hidden Smile photograph of a woman called Madame 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 then asked me to add to the museum’s collection with 35 other photographs that will now remain in the gallery for two years.

The portrait of Madam Xong quickly became one of my most famous photographs. The picture has gone on to grace the pages of hundreds of international magazines, newspapers and websites. It made me realize how many people were concerned by ‘age’ and how many people were hungry for a different definition of what ‘beauty’ might mean. People are obsessed with the beauty of youth, but there are so many other forms of beauty that should also be valued.

What’s your personal definition of beauty?

When I look through my lens, I’m looking at the light and shadows, the definition of the eyes and the lines around them. I’m considering how to frame my subject to create a powerful image.

What attracts my attention is less about physical beauty and more about the spirit of the person. I look for sparkling eyes, smiles…

Surface beauty can be seen in a glance. True beauty takes a deeper look.

Have you found that different cultures you’ve photographed around the world have different concepts of what is beautiful?  

In Vietnam, the only major difference that I see in the general population is the obsession with skin lightening. In many parts of Asia, white skin is considered to be more beautiful than tanned skin. In the West, tanning is associated with health and leisure while in Vietnam it is often quite the opposite. Otherwise, the mainstream idea of beauty in cities is largely the same worldwide.

What do the tribal people of Vietnam think beauty is?  

In the ethnic communities in Vietnam, there are some very interesting beauty traditions, such as the Brau and the Xtieng ethnic groups who stretch their ears with heavy earrings. There is also a tribe that blackens their teeth. If the teeth are not black they can’t marry.

Are older people that you photograph in Vietnam, India, Cuba and other countries where you’ve worked often surprised that you want to photograph them?  

Yes, I’ve had many encounters with older people who have been surprised that I’m interested in taking their photo. One woman even asked why I hadn’t come “when she was young and beautiful.” She was laughing as she said it and I found her to be quite charming. She still allowed me to take her photograph, despite her words, whereas in the West I think my request might have been refused outright.

Do you think a face with lines, age and experience is more interesting to photograph than youth?

I’m interested in photographing all types of things and faces. I also have photographs of young people and children. What I find interesting are the stories of the people in the portraits. If there is no story then I’m not interested in simply shooting another pretty picture.

I do have some images of young women in my ao dai collection. These photographs are actually some of my bestsellers. However, what I find interesting in these portraits is the dual beauty of the woman and her culture. Her face is mainly kept in shadow or hidden by her conical hat. What stands out is the colour of her dark hair in contrast to her white ao dai tunic, the geometric shape of her hat, and of course the intriguing beauty of the Vietnamese national dress. In Hoi An, where I live, students wear these traditional tunics every day, so my photographs simply bring to life an interesting facet of life in Vietnam.

Do you think people put too much emphasis on youth and youthful appearance?

Yes, I do. I also believe there is so much to learn from our elders. We can’t do that if we disregard them and allow them to become invisible.

Réhahn is a French fine art and travel photographer. Originally from Bayeux in the French region of Normandy, he has lived in Hoi An on Vietnam’s coast since 2011. Using only his first name and often referred to as ‘the photographer who captures the soul’ of his subjects’, he’s a previous winner of the Los Angeles Times’ summer photography competition. His work has appeared in publications from the BBC to National Geographic. Inspired by master photographers such as Steve McCurry and Sebastião Salgado, he is now one of the most successful photographers working in Asia, with around half a million Facebook followers and three photography books to his name.

For more on Réhahn’s Ageless Beauty and Precious Heritage projects, his museums or for prints of his work, visit his website. Réhahn’s books include Vietnam: Mosaic of Contrasts (Vol 1 and 2) and The Collection: 10 years of photography. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

Graeme Green is a UK journalist and photographer.  Find out more on his website. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram.