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Observer, not collector: French photographer Réhahn honours heritage of Vietnam’s last 54 tribes

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Many museum collectors are often criticised for preserving another country’s historical artefacts. When the French colonised Vietnam from 1887 to 1954, its tribal culture was taken and documented through a Eurocentric orientalist point of view.

For French fine art and documentary photographer Réhahn, however, has chosen to respectfully give back to Vietnam’s 54 ethnic tribes through restoration.

“I would consider myself an observer, not a collector of tribal artefacts,” Réhahn told Malay Mail.

“Collectors display these items in their homes but I believe these pieces should belong in their own countries’ museums, cared for by their craftsmen.”

The Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An is a culmination of an unexpected decade-long project of exploration and humanity of Vietnam’s surviving tribes.

“The original mission was to meet and document all 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, but it became so much more than that.” the photographer shared.

“I’ve met friends, who’ve become like family to me, and my whole worldview has changed.”

He first arrived in Vietnam to help provide education to Vietnamese rural children in 2007 with Les Enfants Du Vietnam, a French NGO.

During the trip, Rehahn fell in love with the landscape, textiles, and culture of the Dao and Hmong ethnic groups and his curiosity compelled him.

“From the phenomenal landscapes and kind people to the myriad of diverse cultures, Vietnam is a never-ending well of inspiration.”

In 2011 Rehahn met a 72-year-old boat captain named Bui Thi Xong and captured a candid portrait titled Hidden Smile that would be his most recognised work.

Hidden Smile was gifted from former Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Phu Trong to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron in 2018 at an official ceremony celebrating 45 years of French-Vietnamese friendship.

Preservation and Restoration

The Precious Heritage Museum was opened in January 2017 with the purpose of allowing minorities to preserve their own culture.

On display in the museum are traditional clothing, textiles, jewellery and many various artefacts from the various ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

Réhahn claimed that the 10 tribes invited to the museum were ‘filled with pride’ seeing their costumes and artwork on display.

“I see tourists in the museum praising the works of the tribal people when they visit and I can see it stirs up tears in the eyes of the younger tribesmen.”

He hopes that young minorities will be able to be proud of their culture despite a rapidly modernising Vietnam.

In 2019 Réhahn’s team built two educational foyers in Nghia Lo, Yen Bai Province and Giang Lo Ngoc Hoi District in an effort to benefit the youths of the Hmong and Sedang ethnic groups.

“I believe the best way to break their cycle of poverty is to provide education to the youth.” the photographer said.

Rehahn also added that meeting everyone in the tribes and offering respect to the village elders has made him feel like a surrogate family member.

“When I return to them to feast and play with their children I realise that these people are truly more happy than us city folk, they just have fewer problems.”

“That brings me much more joy than visiting an art gallery in the city.”

Experimenting with Impressionism

After years of documentary photography, Réhahn’s latest works pay homage to his original influences, namely French painter Claude Monet.

The photographer captures classic scenes of Vietnam through the artistic lens of impressionism, an art style from the 19th century featuring small brush strokes creating depicting changes in light.

“I captured paddy field workers through reflections of fire and water and I realised they created a unique effect that made them look like impressionist paintings,” Rehahn said.

“It reminded me of the paintings I admired from my younger days in Honfleur, yet completely Vietnamese in identity.”

This new series will be the photographer’s latest in a series of many collections capturing the lives of various people in Vietnam.

“I will leave all that I did here in Vietnam. In 100 years when I’m not here anymore, people can still come to visit and see what was Vietnam like from 2010 till 2020.”

For more information on Rehahn’s work and Vietnam’s ethnic minorities visit

By Jared Wee – Malay Mail – October 28, 2022

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