Incredible Portraits of South Korea’s Freediving Sea Goddesses

by Owen James Burke

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Yang Chunja. Photo: Hyung S. Kim/Korean Cultural Service NY

Since well before the advent of neoprene, women in South Korea and Japan have been the breadwinners in the Korea Strait, freediving to support their families. They’re instructed to do so, while the men stay dry, ashore, reasoning that because it is believed women (generally) have a higher percentage of body fat, they’re more fit to endure cold water. Whether or not a little body fat makes a lick of difference when diving in the cold Korea Strait, who’s to say? What’s clear is that these women are certifiably valiant.

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Ko Wallja. Photo: Hyung S. Kim/Korean Cultural Service NY

Photographer Hyung S. Kim traveled to the South Korean island provence of Jeju, where for hundreds of years, women have been supporting their families by taking to the deep to hunt and gather everything from lobster to sea urchin. He set up a plain white backdrop just ashore from where women would spend six hours a day diving. Not used to having their pictures taken, you can imagine their consternation as Kim attempted to convince them–just out of the water–to stand in front of a white backdrop for a portrait, ignoring the beautiful coastline around them. But it worked.

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Jung Soonok. Photo: Hyung S. Kim/Korean Cultural Service NY

There are now only some 2,500 haenyeo, as they’re known, down from over 20,000 in the 1960s. The oldest is well into her nineties, while the youngest is thirty eight. Younger generations, it seems, are turning to academia instead.

Across the strait in Japan, a similar tradition is slowly disappearing with the Ama (“women of the sea”), who took to the brisk waters in the nude from as far back as 750 A.D. until 1964, when they began to don wetsuits.

Watch a video on the Muljil Skill [물질], the diving secret of the haenyeo:

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“Haenyeo” is on exhibit at the Korean Cultural Service in New York through April 10th. See more of Hyung S. Kim’s photography in The New Yorker. — OJB


Related stories:

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Women Are Breadwinners in Korea Strait, Fishermen Braving It All

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Japan’s Aphrodisiac, Freediving Women of the Sea

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