Between 2012 and 2014, Seoul-based photographer Hyung S. Kim frequently visited Jeju Island, which lies off the southern coast of South Korea, to document the impressive women carrying on a centuries-old practice. Named the haenyeo—which literally translates to ocean women—the iconic divers harvest shellfish and other sea life without oxygen, requiring that they hold their breath for up to three minutes while plunging 10 meters underwater. Today, many have surpassed age sixty: the youngest diver Kim photographed was 38 at the time, while the oldest was more than 90.
Captured just after they exited the water, Kim’s life-size portraits situate the women against a stark, white backdrop, which emphasizes their dirt-speckled shoes and wet, shining gear. Their equipment includes a tewak, the orange sphere slung over some of their shoulders, that floats at the surface during each dive and lead weights attached to their waists to hasten the descent.
“They are shown exactly as they are, tired and breathless. But, at the same time, they embody incredible mental and physical stamina, as the work itself is so dangerous; every day they cross the fine line between life and death,” Kim explained in an interview with The New Yorker immediately following the series’ release.” I wanted to capture this extreme duality of the women: their utmost strength combined with human fragility.”
In 2016, the haenyeo were added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage as the number of divers has dwindled from around 20,000 in the 1960s to just 2,500 in recent years. Although the work was male-dominated originally, it began to reflect the semi-matriarchal society of the Jeju by the 18th century and continues to be led by women today.
Explore the full collection of Kim’s portraits on his site, and see where the remarkable series will be exhibited next by following the photographer on Instagram. You also might enjoy Kimi Werner’s short film documenting her visit to Jeju Island.
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