South Korea's 'Sea Women' - in pictures
A new exhibition at Sydney's Maritime museum, Haenyeo – the sea women of Jeju Island, shares an intimate look at the community of women divers known as Haenyeo (sea women), who harvest the seas sustainably around Jeju Island, off the southern tip of South Korea.
Today, the Haenyeo are mostly aged over 60, with some in their 80s. Over many lifetimes they have been free diving for conch, sea cucumber, urchins, abalone and seaweed – in icy, warm, calm and treacherous waters.
It is dangerous, physical work, as the Haenyeo do not use a snorkel or air tank. They dive to 20-metre depths holding their breaths for up to two minutes, often for hours at a time. Girls and young women train with their elders for years before they reach sanggun – senior status.
The portraits, captured by photographer Hyungsun Kim, show the women as more than a symbol of an ancient practice; their incredible lives in the sea are writ in every line and surface as each woman confronts the photographer's lens after coming in from a dive, in a makeshift-sheeted studio on the shoreline.
Hyungsun Kim says, ‘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. I wanted to capture this extreme duality of the women: their utmost strength combined with human fragility.’
The exhibition has been produced by the Australian National Maritime Museum and the Korean Cultural Centre Australia with assistance from the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province to commemorate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and the Republic of Korea in 2021.
The free exhibition runs until June 13. You can find out more here.