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Seoul eye: under the Jeju sea

The hardworking Korean "mermaids” also known as haenyeo, of Jeju

Standing in front of a white backdrop, an old Korean haenyeo (literally meaning “sea women”) forces an awkward smile. Kim Julja isn’t exactly camera-ready, as she poses in her dripping wetsuit after five to six hours of working in the sea. In the ‘70s, there were about 14,000 haenyeos. But now there are only 4,500 of them left, out of which only nine are in their thirties. Unlike scuba divers, haenyeos dive without special equipment or an oxygen tank. It’s not only an unbelievable feat, but also shocking, as most of them celebrated their fiftieth birthday long ago. 

Spending four years on Jeju Island to work on his photo series  “Haenyeo,” photographer Hyung S. Kim is more knowledgeable about these sea women than most ambitious reporters. “They don’t pass 
their trade down to their children, as they are very well aware of the dangers and difficulties of being a haenyeo,” explains Kim. The portraits may seem like studio photographs, but Kim installed a white fabric backdrop near the shoreline so he could immediately capture the haenyeos’ exhausted expressions after their work. After the project commenced in 2011, it took him a year to coax the first haenyeo into his viewfinder, “The 90-year-old Ra Wal-soo gave me freshly caught abalone and conch to eat, while she only watched,” recalls Kim. “I can’t forget the day when she gave me her hand as we said good-bye. She saw me off as if I were her own son.”

At first, Kim was ignored and shouted at when he approached the haenyeos. But slowly over time, his perseverance won their hearts over, as “he spent more time watching and waiting” than shooting the actual photographs. Unlike most documentary photographs that depict the haenyeos’ unique lives at sea as a collective cultural phenomenon, Hyung S. Kim captures each haenyeo as an individual woman. Focusing on their character, “Hanyeo” reveals a unique portrait of Korea’s working sea women that we were not aware of. (Because we rarely have the chance to see the look on our mother’s face right after a hard day’s work.)

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