French photographer works to advertise Vietnam ethnic culture to the world
Réhahn Croquevielle admitted that he had a “crush” on Vietnam after his first visit to the country in 2007. Over the course of six years, the French photographer travelled across Vietnam to explore and capture photos on the unique features of the Vietnamese ethnic groups.
A collection of 35 selected photos, which were taken during that trip, are now on display at his solo exhibition, which opened in Hanoi on August 1st, under the theme ‘Precious Heritage’. The 35 photos are portraits of the elderly and children representing the ethnic minority groups throughout Vietnam, dressed in their traditional clothes.
The exhibition is being held at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology and will run from August 1st to October 1st. On the occasion, Réhahn Croquevielle granted the Thoi Nay (Today) publication of Nhan Dan (The People) Newspaper an interview to share his journey as well as his view on Vietnamese ethnic groups.
How did you come up with the idea of collecting and capturing the traditional costumes of Vietnamese ethnic minority groups?
French photographer Réhahn Croquevielle: On my first trip to Sapa district in Lao Cai province in 2008, I was attracted by the costumes of the H’Mong and Dao groups there. Then I discovered that Vietnam is home to 54 ethnic groups with different costumes and languages. These invaluable heritages make Vietnam different from others countries in the world, in my opinion, and I came up with the idea of searching for and meeting ethnic minority groups in Vietnam.
I also realised that at present fewer people in the ethnic minority groups are wearing their traditional costumes. In ethnic groups which have a population of just a few hundred people, only the elders can speak their indigenous language and know how to make their traditional costumes.
As we are gradually loosing these invaluable heritages, I wanted to promote the indigenous culture of Vietnamese ethnic groups. I have travelled to almost all of the cities and provinces in Vietnam, meeting 48 out of the 54 Vietnamese ethnic groups. My private museum in Hoi An city now has 30 sets of traditional costumes from Vietnamese tribes.
How did you capture photos of Vietnamese people wearing their traditional clothes?
I wandered around on my motorcycle to get inspiration; sometimes I stopped at the pavement and talked with people. I have visited the far reaches of Vietnam where I sat on the ground and talked with locals freely and naturally.
It is difficult to take a good photo unless the photographer creates a good connection with his characters. Some photographers don’t care about their characters, they just leave after taking their photos and feel it’s all done. I’m not like that. I look for a natural moment from my characters. Sometimes, my inspiration came at a moment when I was talking with my characters.
Can you tell us about your most memorable trips?
I had to wait three years to reach a village of Ro Mam people in Kon Tum province. It took us nearly four hours to conquer 51 kilometres of slopping streets and mountain passes on the way to the village.
During my journey searching for the Phu La ethnic people in Bac Ha district, Lao Cai province, the roads were so rough that I was discouraged at times. I tried to overcome that feeling. When I arrived, I was so sad when I learnt that the Phu La people don’t make their traditional costumes any more.
How did you convince ethnic minority people to wear their costumes so that you could take a photo of them?
I didn’t convince them. I love communicating, talking, and chatting with those I meet in the street. When people feel happy and trust in me, they let me photograph them agreeably.
Ethnic minority people are often open-minded and friendly. When I asked them for directions on my way, they welcomed me with food and they were glad to meet a foreigner who was interested in their traditional costumes and culture.
During my visit to the Cho Ro people in October 2016, the head of the village presented me with the last set of traditional costumes of their group, while his wife asked me for a photo featuring her in that clothing. Nobody in the village makes their traditional costumes anymore. I was also presented with a traditional outfit made from tree bark by a representative of the Co Tu people in Quang Nam province. These are invaluable gifts to me.
What should we do to preserve our fading traditional culture, in your opinion?
I think the most efficient way to preserve the culture of the ethnic groups is to promote them outside their community, to create a sense of pride for their heritage and ancient customs.
We should also further advertise the rich persity of the Vietnam ethnic culture to the world. Many foreign tourists pledged that they would come back to Vietnam again, to explore more about the culture of Vietnamese tribal groups, after they visited my exhibition in Hoi An.
What is your plan in the near future?
In 2016, I hosted an exhibition in Caen city, Normandy region, France. The ten-day event attracted up to 200,000 visitors. I could see great interest and surprise from the visitors.
I will continue exploring and photographing the culture of the six remaining ethnic groups of Vietnam which I haven’t met yet and I was also invited to hold exhibitions in Japan and Canada, which could be organised next year.
I hope that the cultural organisations and museums in Vietnam will pay more care and attention to the possible organisation of a festival in Hoi An, which will highlight 54 Vietnamese ethnic groups. It will be a very interesting carnival which will attract numerous foreign visitors to Vietnam for sure.
Thank you so much for the interview!
French photographer Réhahn Croquevielle and his three elderly Vietnamese models.
Réhahn is a photographer from Normandy, France, who has been based in Hoi An since 2011. Led by his love of travelling and meeting people, he had visited more than 35 countries before making Hoi An his home. He is renowned for his images of Vietnam, Cuba and India, with some citing him as a photographer who captures the souls of his models.
Rehahn published his first photo book about Vietnam in 2014, entitled “Mosaic of Contrasts”, followed by “Vietnam, Mosaic of Contrasts Volume II” in late 2015.
In January this year, he established the Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum at 26 Phan Boi Chau street, in Hoi An. By charging no entry fee and displaying everything with text in Vietnamese, English and French, the museum provides visitors with an opportunity to explore Vietnam’s identity, and discover what’s beyond the more obvious images.
Some photos on display at the ‘Precious Heritage’ exhibition: