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Rehahn Croquevielle: Portaits From Vietnam

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Rehahn Croquevielle is French photographer known simply as Rehahn to most. He's self-taught and in 2007 discovered photography and Vietnam. He became widely known after the publication of his book, Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts. I was able to chat with the photographer about his previous book, and his new project, Vietnam from the Sky.

When did you first pick up a camera? What first attracted you to photography?

I bought my first camera when I began to travel around 2007. It was a Canon EOS 350D. When I moved to Vietnam, I invested in the Canon 5D Mark II, which helped me to evolve my skills in photography.

I think that what attracts me to photography is the opportunity to connect with people. Rehahn prior to photography was someone who is shy. Yet, Rehahn the photographer is someone courageous enough to be outspoken in order to meet and talk to people to be able to photograph them.

There has to be a mix of persuasion, negotiation and discussion in the process, so I have to interact with my model. I learned all that on my own, but I must say Vietnam is an incredible paradise for a photographer, and not only for portraits!

At which point in your career did you decide to take photography seriously? Are you a full time photographer or is taking pictures just part of a broader experience?

After I moved to Hoi An, Vietnam in 2012, besides managing my restaurant business here, I had much free time. This gave me a chance to dedicate time to learn photography and also explore Vietnam.

This country is a mix of colors and cultures that will leave no one indifferent. In September 2013, I made a 15 day trip with my motorbike in the north of the country and I came back with almost 6000 photos. It made me click. My friends and fans encouraged me, as I shared those photos on my Facebook page, which was starting to get some attention. 

There were 6000 members in August, 20,000 in October, and more than 50,000 today. The comments motivated me, and the idea of a book came to my mind. I do not want to consider myself as a professional and I do not want to financially depend on photography. My priority is freedom! Which is in fact the principal reason I moved to Vietnam.

You've travelled to multiple places around the world, but have settled in Vietnam. Why did you choose Vietnam?

Vietnam is a paradise for photographers. The light is exceptional. The country is secure. We can live 15 days in the furthest regions without problems, and I think it will take me my whole life to visit the whole country!

There are 54 ethnic groups and regions that are distinctively different from one another. Within some 200 kilometers distance, we find different realities.

You have a restaurant in the town of Hoi An now, but you were in the printing industry in France before. Why did you leave your country and profession? 

I have a restaurant with a photo gallery inside. I was 32 years old when I moved here. In France I had the feeling I was working a lot for not much at all. I had no free time and no freedom! Here, photography has become a passion, almost a drug.

It empties my mind and it’s my way to relax. The restaurant was an opportunity chosen at the right moment. Now it allows me to meet a lot of people and even some excellent photographers came to visit me there.


You've used a motorbike to travel in Vietnam. Is that a good option for photographers wanting to explore the land? Or is there another reason you chose it as a way to move around?

A motorbike is an easy option and yet again, a way that offers a total freedom. I can stop at any village at any moment, I can go away from the tourist circuits, and take my time. Sometimes I spend a whole day in a village. Furthermore, it is a practical way to move around, and the cost of gas is unbeatable.

Which photographers have influenced you? And outside of photography, are there areas from which you draw inspiration?

The photographer who has influenced me most is Manny Librodo, especially his India and Philippines collection. I did send him a copy of my book. My inspiration in photography at this moment comes from meeting with multiple (ethnic groups). I am lucky, Vietnam has over 50. I have photographed a dozen only, and I'm nowhere near finished!

You've got a passion for portraits. How did you start doing portraits in your travels?

Portraits have become my favorite area. Landscapes interest me, but the idea of staying alone with my tripod for a couple of hours does not tickle my envy. I love to share, I love stories and I always make sure my photos suggest those stories.

Portraits are not an easy subject. We cannot have a natural portrait in five minutes. It takes time and it takes a lot of social contact. Travel portraits represent 90% of my work. 

You photograph a lot of children and elderly people. Why?

Children offer a ton of possibilities. Smiling or frowning, they remain beautiful. We can experience very funny moments with them. They are also patient, especially when it comes to meeting and interacting with new people like myself.

The elderly, in Vietnam, always smile with very defined faces. Their life is mostly written on their faces through the wrinkles. The long beards of the wise men fascinate me also. They are more difficult to photograph because it takes time and to avoid being invasive of their intimacy. We need to know when to stop before disturbing them, but I have a very big collection of long beards!

How do you manage to get permission to photograph the people in your pictures? Are these people strangers or people you've come to know through time?

There is no secret. Time is my key to success. Sometimes, you need to sit with them for 20 minutes before taking the first photo. Sometimes, an hour. But it’s worth it! 

The Vietnamese people all love photography, from the youngest kids to the eldest of the village. You just need to know how to approach them, to talk with them a bit and to show them photos. Humor is also a great icebreaker.

Can you explain your process when it comes to photographing people? How do you approach them to set up a session?

I travel on my motorbike and it happens often that I take small roads that lead to small villages. When they are not used to see strangers, they all run home. So I sit somewhere, and the first kids come back out ten minutes later. I take the photos and show them. From there, the process starts running. 

They laugh, and joke around, so the parents come to see. In the end, the elderly start to join us. In around an hour, the whole village is here and everything is possible. I always show them their photo. It’s very important.

In technical terms, what do you use for your portrait photography?

I use a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and when I feel that the people are receptive, I change to the 50mm f/1.4.

Your book Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts offers an intimate view of the country and some of its people. Is this all you'll publish when it comes to showing the country or do you intend to share more of your discoveries with the world?

This book is only the beginning. My goal is to show to the world that there is more to see than just Halong Bay. I want to give value to the people, who are poor, but still happy and optimistic most of the time.

I hope it will attract more photographers to Vietnam. It is also a way to thank the people that have received me with open arms in their country. I have many other projects, such as a book on Cuba, planned for the future.

You've often mentioned you want to travel to new places and countries. Do you think your photography in those places will reach the same intimacy you've shown in your Vietnam series?

I don't think anyone can release a real book in 15 days of travels! We have to immerse and to learn the population, the culture and also a bit of the language. I do not think I will be releasing a book of the same style for another country, for now.

Q. What are your projects for the future? Is there a specific direction you want to take your photography and traveling?

I am preparing a new book that will be called Vietnam From the Sky. A Vietnamese company (Key Production) invested in a drone and proposed a partnership to travel through Vietnam for a series of 50 images seen from the sky.

It is outside of my usual photos, but I want to learn and I will come back to portraits right after. It is important to come out of our own field. 

In a month's time I will be heading to Rajasthan with an Indian photographer for ten days of portrait photos. I cannot wait to be there.

Check out more of Rehahn's work at www.rehahnphotographer.com and follow his travels on Facebook.

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