It all started as casually as a conversation with a fellow coworker, back when “world-recognized photographer” wasn’t yet part of the job description. Before his photographs graced book covers and galleries all over the world, the renowned French photographer known to most simply as Réhahn was a company man. During his time in the corporate world, he crossed paths with a colleague who doubled as a photographer in his free time, often staying late after work to edit his shots. One evening, the man invited Réhahn to join him, and the two got to talking about the art of capturing life through the lens. The conversation seemed innocent enough, but Réhahn’s journey would soon be transformed by a single suggestion made that night: “Buy yourself a camera.”
Today, Réhahn is celebrated for his incredibly captivating portraiture — an homage to the distinct cultural backgrounds and personal stories outlined in the intricate details of each face. His portraits often showcase people from Vietnam, India, and Cuba, countries that boast a rich history, an ethnic diversity, and a unique culture. For Réhahn, Vietnam in particular — his permanent home since 2011— is a special combination of all three.
Réhahn finds himself drawn to unusual faces, ones that seem like they have a story to tell. Whenever he catches of a glimpse of this distinctive trait, often from the seat of his motorcycle, he stops, introduces himself, and invites the individual to sit down for a chat. Réhahn’s photography is unique in that it does not center on or end with the pressing of a shutter — he makes it a point to get to know the person in front of the lens and ensure that their story, whatever it may be, does not go unheard. In fact, sometimes the first photo isn’t taken until the conversation has run on for a few hours. Only through this established personal connection does he believe that he can capture what he truly seeks to highlight: genuine emotion. Many have gone so far as to praise him for capturing the very souls of the people he photographs, a compliment he is deeply humbled by. But perhaps the most unique aspect of his work lies in the philosophy that drives it, what he calls “conscious photography.”
As a burgeoning documentary photographer in the field, Réhahn was quickly confronted with the traditional “one photo equals one dollar” approach to compensation. But he soon realized this tactic only served to encourage children to remain in the streets. He believed that the nature of a photographer’s impact should be one of social responsibility and finding solutions, not one that ultimately perpetuates a vicious cycle of dependence with a few meager monetary donations.
When he opened his first gallery and his photographs began to garner attention, a desire to help came naturally. A firm believer in the power of karma, Réhahn knew his success should be shared with those who had helped construct it. Just like that, the seeds of an idea were planted.
The Giving Back Project, officially launched in 2011, is Réhahn’s personal passion project, his way of turning a vicious cycle into a virtuous one. The initiative embodies the closing of a circle in the relationship between photographer and subject. They give him their beautiful expressions; he captures their portrait. But once the photograph achieves a certain level of recognition, he retraces his steps, finds his subject once more, and tries to make a meaningful contribution to their lives. He sees it as a win-win situation — his models receive the personalized help they need, and he gets to enjoy the feeling of being part of a global family.
From sponsoring eye operations and purchasing cattle to undertaking the construction of a museum dedicated to the Co Tu Vietnamese ethnic group and systematically funding schools across many communities, Réhahn’s contributions are much more than charity — they are lasting acts of gratitude meant to honor the individuals that have left their mark on his work and his life. In this way, he becomes a brother, a son, a grandson — a collector of stories and moments that will eventually bring him back to where he has come from.
Réhahn prides himself on his family-like relationship with many of his subjects. Each time he visits his frequented destinations, whether it be Vietnam or Cuba, he is welcomed with open arms and open hearts — a wealth that surpasses any monetary gain and that balances his everyday life as a gallery owner.
Since starting the Giving Back Project, Réhahn feels increasingly detached from a photography industry in which ego and competition abound. His priorities have always been the same: discover rich cultures and traditions while making friends along the way. To him, photography is something of a means to an end, a tool that allows him to connect with people he would not usually cross paths with otherwise. One of his most cherished moments throughout the journey of the Giving Back Project is the day he invited 35 orphan children from various Vietnamese ethnic groups to see the sea for the first time. Witnessing the expressions on their faces is a memory he will treasure forever.
Although the Giving Back Project is a personal one, Réhahn hopes that others will recognize the value in practicing conscious photography. Too often, he sees photographers turning a profit without making a real effort to give back to the communities and individuals who made the photo possible in the first place. But, as he so good-naturedly puts it, that’s between them and their karma.
To learn more about Réhahn and the Giving Back Project, visit rehahnphotographer.com.