Imagine free diving in cold, shark-infested, treacherous waters without even a rubber diving suit. You’ve been training to increase your lung capacity since you were 15, and now you can hold your breath for two minutes and dive down 60 feet with only short rests in between. You’re not doing this for fun, as some sort of extreme sport, but rather to gather abalones, conches, and sea cucumbers to provide income to feed your family.
Welcome to the lives of the sea women, or haenyeo, of South Korea’s Jeju Island. For centuries, generations of women trained in this unique profession, forming an entirely unique societal structure that made them their family’s breadwinners. Many worked at their jobs, called muljil, through their teens to their old age (today, at least, they get to wear rubber suits).
Photographer Hyung S. Kim, who has a new exhibit at the Korean Cultural Service in New York City this month, met haenyeo for the first time on a trip to Jeju Island four years ago. “In Korea,” he says, “everyone knows who haenyeo are, but it was the first time I was able to see them in real life. As I saw them come out of the water from their muljil work, I was struck with a kind of awe that I wanted to share with not only Korean people, but those around the world.”
Living on the island while he completed the project, Kim produced photo and video portraits of the woman to capture their natural states just as they came out of their deep dives. While there are already plenty of images of haenyeo at work, Kim decided on portraits because few people get to see who they really are.
“I wanted to portray the women from solely human perspective, not seeing them as part of their surroundings,” he says, through a translator. “I was interested in the haenyeo first and foremost as people, as women, not part of nature or their physical location.”
Today, haenyeo culture is disappearing, from 26,000 sea women in the 1960s to fewer than 5,000 today. Kim estimates that 80% to 90% of the haenyeo he encountered were over the age of 60, and he was told there are only seven haenyeo in their thirties. The economy on the beautiful volcanic island, which now receives millions of visitors each year, is dominated by tourism, not seafood harvesting. Recently, the UNESCO organization, which manages World Heritage Sites, declared haenyeo culture a candidate for the list of “intangible” cultural assets. A listing could help mobilize support to preserve the dwindling numbers of haenyeo, and give added prestige to the profession.
Haenyeo resonate deeply with most Koreans today, as an exception in a society that is typically quite patriarchal. “For me, the images of haenyeo overlap with the images of my mother or grandmother,” says Kim. “This is because the work of haenyeo is something that requires an incredible amount of self-sacrifice, something that mothers do unconditionally for their children.”
Kim’s work will be on exhibit at the Korean Cultural Service New York through April 10, part of the Asia Week New York festival. See more information here.