Grandma Divers: Portraits of South Korea’s haenyeo

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Off the coast of South Korea, a community of ageing women spend their days free diving from the black shores of Jeju Island in search of ocean delicacies. In thin rubber suits and old-fashioned masks, the renowned haenyeo — or “women of the sea” — dive for up to six hours a day, and hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time.

The haenyeo craft — the subject of Alain Schroeder’s winning Portrait of Humanity 2020 series, Grandma Divers — is a centuries-old profession and, today, a culturally-treasured way of life. It depends upon a deep knowledge of, and respect for, marine life: the women dive without oxygen tanks and prevent harvests at certain times to safeguard against overfishing and preserve the region’s ecology. Reportedly, they never allow the harvesting of young fish or shellfish.

Soon-ja Hong of Seongsan comes out of the water holding an octopus.  She explains that she and her fellow haenyeo set traps to catch octopuses which come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Now 69, she is at the peak of her career. ©Alain Schroeder
Soon Hwa Kim, 71, comes from Myeonsu-dong Village. She has been diving 60 years. She has a son and a daughter, though she did not encourage her daughter to follow her career path because the work is too hard. ©Alain Schroeder

Having sold his shares in a successful Belgian photo agency in 2012, the Portrait of Humanity winner exists as a perpetual traveller; with no home and just a suitcase of belongings, he moves from country to country, researching as he goes. “On Jeju, I saw one woman coming out of the water, and she took off her mask, and then her hood,” he recalls. “The equipment is tight, it doesn’t come off easily. She made this face as she did it, totally distorted. The second she did that, I knew I needed to make a series of portraits.”

Shot against black backdrops, staged wherever the haenyeo happened to be exiting the water, the result is a striking series of images: some solemn, even heroic; others lively and animated. Schroeder’s subjects are proud and deliberate as they go about their business, removing their suits, presenting their catches, shaking themselves off.

Oksun Kim, 80, comes from Myeonsu-dong Village. She adjusts her vintage oval mask. The problem with these traditional masks is that they cover the nose preventing the haenyeo from equalising their ears — which leads to ear barotrauma, hearing loss and migraines. ©Alain Schroeder
Hyunsuk Oh, 65, shows off a giant abalone — her most precious catch of the morning. While small abalone are abundant and sell well locally, larger specimens are harder to dislodge from the rocks, often situated around 10 meters down. ©Alain Schroeder

Historically, the occupation is passed on early from mother to daughter, but numerous experts agree this may be the last generation of women to practice it. “It’s extremely hazardous,” Schroeder explains. “Haenyeo women regularly suffer from decompression illness, blackouts and hypothermia.” Some dives have even proved fatal.

Nonetheless, as the women’s numbers have waned, fascination around them has burgeoned. In 2015, the Jeju government spent the equivalent of $6.5m on measures to help preserve the haenyeo, and they were subsequently added to the the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. As Schroeder observes: “The haenyeo of South Korea may be the last modern heroines whose story must be told.”

Grandma Divers is exhibiting as part of the Portrait of Humanity 2020 Global Tour, on show at Capa Center, Budapest, until 11 October and Indian Photo Festival, Hyderabad, between 12 November and 13 December 2020.

Enter Portrait of Humanity 2021 (Deadline 22 October 2020 – 23:59 UK Time)

Wonja Kang, 83, comes from Myeonsu-dong Village. There is no retirement age for haenyeo women, and usually the oldest and more experienced divers go further out to sea in order to harvest the more valuable catches. ©Alain Schroeder
Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.