Haenyeo: Moth­ers of the Sea

Marie Claire (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words JI-SUN KIM

Start­ing their deep-sea div­ing ca­reers as young girls, the haenyeo work into old age – hold­ing their breath as they dive for their liveli­hoods. Pho­tog­ra­pher Joon Choi is work­ing to make sure their pro­fes­sion, and legacy, is not for­got­ten

IF YOU HAVE vis­ited Jeju (South Korea’s largest is­land) you would prob­a­bly have heard the sound of their breath al­ready. There’s even a word for it: sumbisori – and from a dis­tance, it sounds like a whistling noise, as they break the sur­face af­ter a long sub­mer­sion. It is a sound that car­ries par­al­lels with lives that are try­ing and tough be­yond imag­i­na­tion. It was this sound that drew pho­tog­ra­pher Joon Choi to the haenyeo (‘sea women’), deep-sea free driv­ers, while he was on the is­land shoot­ing a com­mer­cial in 2013. He shot por­traits of eight women, but fre­quently re­turned to the is­land to pho­to­graph more of them, de­ter­mined to cre­ate a record of their ex­tra­or­di­nary lives. Af­ter a year of pho­tograph­ing the old fe­male divers on Udo, a tiny is­land next to Jeju, he put to­gether the book The Haenyeo and Me. ‘I felt some­thing weighty and deep as I stared at their faces,’ Joon says. ‘That’s what led me all the way to Udo.’

Tra­di­tion­ally, the haenyeo be­gin shal­low-wa­ter div­ing for abalone (which they sell) at an early age, and move on to deep-wa­ter div­ing by the time they are teenagers and con­tinue to work in the sea un­til their last breath. They dive for seafood on the ocean oor, up to 10m with­out air tanks, with lead weights strapped to their waists. There are still about 4 500 haenyeo ac­tively work­ing in Jeju, most of them are over 70 and, with many of them not want­ing their daugh­ters and grand­daugh­ters to take up the pro­fes­sion, the sea women might dis­ap­pear in a few decades. South Korea ap­plied to Unesco to add the haenyeo to its in­tan­gi­ble cul­tural her­itage list last year and Joon Choi is also work­ing to pro­mote their lives and liveli­hoods through his pho­to­graphs. He rst ex­hib­ited his se­ries of the sea women at the Unesco head­quar­ters in Paris, France, in April this year be­fore show­cas­ing them in other cities. In work­ing with the haenyeo, Joon Choi found that moth­er­hood drives these women to con­tinue with their per­ilous pro­fes­sion. ‘They have a job to nish ght­ing against the ckle weather, be­fore the sun sets and be­fore the tide rises… I have never seen them rest for a sin­gle mo­ment. Back when ev­ery­one was poor, work­ing hard was part of their sur­vival on the bar­ren is­land.’ While their rub­ber wet­suits keep them warm and al­low them to stay un­der wa­ter longer, the long pe­ri­ods of sub­mer­sion lead to other oc­cu­pa­tional prob­lems, such as hard­ness of hear­ing, arthri­tis, chronic headaches and os­teo­poro­sis. None­the­less, the fe­male divers say that they are proud of their job, which en­ables them to raise their chil­dren as well as se­cure an in­de­pen­dent life even in old age with­out hav­ing to ask their chil­dren

for nan­cial sup­port. The sea women, in par­tic­u­lar, are known for their in­de­pen­dence and their strength, ‘which comes from the moth­ers’ in­stinct to feed their chil­dren,’ Joon Choi says. When they were younger, the women would put their ba­bies into bam­boo bas­kets and carry them to work. These bas­kets were placed by the sea and the haenyeo would breast­feed their chil­dren be­tween dives. ‘They stayed in shal­low wa­ter and came out as of­ten as they could to check on their ba­bies,’ he says oon Choi de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of pho­tograph­ing the women as un­for­get­table. ‘They hardly make a big fuss about any­thing. They are not talk­a­tive ei­ther, but you can read rich life sto­ries from their pro­found fa­cial ex­pres­sions. The haenyeo are not highly ed­u­cated, they are not from wealthy back­grounds. But they have the kind of sta­bil­ity that only those who have life-or-death mo­ments ev­ery day demon­strate.’ It was this sta­bil­ity and ded­i­ca­tion that struck Joon Choi the most. ‘I re­alised what a pro­fes­sional re­ally is when I looked at the women get­ting ready to dive in. They fo­cus on the wa­ter so in­tently that they al­most seem to be dragged into the sea and fear­lessly plunge into it with­out a hint of hes­i­ta­tion. They are quick and pre­cise in choos­ing the best time to dive in. They calmly ready them­selves for the in­her­ent un­pre­dictabil­ity of their pro­fes­sion, draw­ing on their skills and long ex­pe­ri­ence.’ This ex­pe­ri­ence comes from years of learn­ing how to work with na­ture. ‘They know how to lead a life in sync with na­ture and seem to know how to take what na­ture gives them, and let go of things when they have to. Udo and the haenyeo still have nat­u­ral, raw beauty and don’t try to go against na­ture but, in­stead, be­come part of it.’

In a coun­try where fe­male pro­fes­sion­als have been rel­a­tively scarce, the haenyeo’s nan­cial in­de­pen­dence is some­thing of a his­toric rar­ity, but, Joon Choi says, ‘there is more to them than that they are also stout and strong. They are very proud of what they do and sel­dom re­tire in old age. Some peo­ple in Jeju even claim that the haenyeo were the world’s rst pro­fes­sional women. They don’t ask their chil­dren for nan­cial sup­port. They forge ahead and there is no turn­ing back. This is the at­ti­tude I learned from them.’


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