My fascination with Haenyeo (Korean female divers, literal translate to sea women) started since I was young. From my first trip to Jeju island in my pre-teen, I remember an old lady with hunched back and bowed legs freely swimming into the deep blue ocean with no breathing equipment. It was like seeing a mermaid come alive! A Haenyeo’s song, known as Sumbi sori - an ancient breathing technique used by Haenyo to sustain tremendous pressure up to 20m below the sea - sounds like a group of mother whales singing for baby whales. Their immense vitality and livelihood blew my young mind, especially for a girl growing up in a biased culture toward femininity. Their spirit was groovy and exuberant; To my young eyes, Haenyeo was a celebration of womanhood.
In 2020, I finally began to capture Haenyeo’s spirit through my lens. I followed one of the Haenyeo tribes with about 12-15 women divers in Aewol, a small town in Jeju, and documented their ordinary working day. Most of Haenyeo was over 60s - the youngest member was in her mid-50s, and the oldest was mid-80s. Some had limited view or hearing, and many of them lived with chronic headaches from diving through the pressure in the deep ocean for many years, which required them to take medication before diving. Their old wetsuit is hanging on one side of the wall in Haenyeo’s rest area; they had to patch the worn-out gap in the wetsuit with rubber glue before getting into the sea.
If weather permits, Haenyeo gather around their rest area every morning, looking out to the ocean to see if the mother ocean is calm enough to let them dive in and catch the daily portion. Sometimes Haenyeo stand by for hours until the water becomes still. When the sea appears peaceful, they swiftly move toward the front ocean.
Their bright spirit comes alive as soon as they get into a wetsuit and carry a net and a tewak (a round flotation device) like Marvel heroes in their special suits. Their steps are merry and energetic, and their laughter is light, like teenage girls going to picnic in the park.Stepping through rough ocean rocks - it was hard for me to follow them - Haenyoe effortlessly carried themselves to the deep ocean, just like Mermaid. For about 2-3 hours, their Muljil (literally translates to water work, which means working in the sea) continues, with countless diving down to the ocean for about 2-3 minutes and breathing at the ocean surface. Whistle-like sounds of Sumbi sori beautifully fill the air harmoniously. It was the sound of life - joy and suffering in one miraculous sound.
No single Haenyeo works alone. They always work together as a group because the ocean can be as brutal as taking one’s life. Haenyeo cannot be greedy - they only catch the portion they can hold in their net, which they had to carry out to the sea, through the rock, and until they reach Haenyeo’s rest area. Humble catch of the day is all they have; being greedy means putting the tribe in danger. Haenyeo does this same routine every day as long as the mother ocean is peaceful enough for Muljil, even on the hot summer day, even on the snowy winter day.
In this demanding environment, Haenyeo eyes still carry dignity and innocence. Maybe it is because of working as a part of the mother earth, or perhaps because of their sisterhood; Their spirit is stunningly beautiful.
JEJU HAENYEO is a work-in-progress photography project capturing the sisterhood and the fascinating spirit of Korean female sea divers. I hope to continue to work on the project as a long-term piece to celebrate the beauty of this unique group of sea divers.