Stunning photos of 'Haenyo', the last generation of deep-sea diving Korean 'mermaids'
  • Original English | 2016-11-03
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Stunning photos of 'Haenyo', the last generation of deep-sea diving Korean 'mermaids'
For more than a century, Korean women have earned a living deep-sea diving to catch oysters, sea cucumbers, abalones, sea urchins, and squids.
Known as "haenyo," meaning "sea women," they hold their breath for two minutes, diving 65 feet deep without any equipment. In recent years, their numbers have rapidly decreased.
Photographer Mijoo Kim set out to document their traditional practice in a photo series entitled "The Mother of the Sea."
Mijoo Kim was raised near the sea in Busan, in the southern part of South Korea. “I had a passing familiarity with haenyos when I started the project, but I didn't know exactly what they go through,” she said.
At first, when Kim asked to photograph them, they refused. She helped them peel sea urchins and drove them back from dive sites until they allowed her to take out her camera.
By getting to know them and earning their trust, Kim was able to take intimate, close-up portraits of the women.
“I believe the distance between a photographer and subject matters in the photos, and shows a level of closeness,” she said.
Her pictures spare no detail, capturing the exhaustion, strength, and understated grace of the haenyo.
While they may dive to great depths with the apparent ease of mermaids, their job is a difficult one.
As the Korean saying goes, “Haenyos do the work of the dead in the land of the living.”
They hold their breath for two minutes, diving over 65 feet deep with no diving equipment.
“I hope to share not only their beauty as women, but also their courage and their tenacity in facing difficulties during their lives,” Kim said.
One of these difficulties is their dwindling numbers. There were 20,000 divers in 1960. Today, there are only 2,500.
Kim attributes the decline to “industrialization, pollution, and the dangerous and arduous nature of the work.”
Korean government official said that the haenyo will be gone in another 20 years if there are no new recruits.
Haenyo schools on the island of Jeju hope to preserve the tradition.
“I believe that these women are carrying on an important cultural legacy, I hope these haenyos are not the last of their line.” Kim said.
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