The Haenyeo Diaries: Day 1

I just wanted to share something that I am fortunate to see practically every day when the weather is nice here on Jeju Island: haenyeo (female free divers). Literally meaning “sea women,” they dive for various seafood without any breathing apparatus and catch up to 30~40 kg of seafood in one outing. And if that weren’t amazing enough, most of the haenyeo are old, I mean grandmotherly-old. Here is one of my sessions with some local haenyeo who dive right in front of my home. Although they have been documented quite extensively on TV and the media, it is truly amazing and humbling to watch them in person day in and day out.

Mrs. Goh is 77 years old. She has worked as a haenyeo so long that she doesn’t even remember the age she started. But she jokingly told me she’s definitely been doing it longer than I’ve been alive, which is impressive because little do they know that I’m not as young as they think I am. And just like my experience with a halmoni in Seoul for another photography project, it was difficult getting the first initial shots, which is quite understandable since this is their job and, in general, the elderly here in Korea rarely want their photos taken. Luckily, after visiting them countless times after their outings, they have gotten accustomed to me and have opened up with more conversation and interaction. I can even say they consider me part of their “clan” in some way (it’s nice being part of a clan). Interestingly enough, now they order me to do the heavy stuff like carry their nets and help weigh their catch after a long outing. When I’m not helping them, I’m fortunate enough to get these photographs.

[excerpt from Eating Korea]
“Haenyeo can see bullshit a mile off,” said Jason. “They might not want to talk to you. They have to like you.”

Jason did the talking as they eyed me up and down. They didn’t look too impressed. I said I just wanted to ask a few questions about their work and their life.

“We’re not interesting,” one of them said. “Go to the museum. All the information you need is there.”

Mrs. Goh couldn’t go to school when she was young because it cost too much. She had to learn to read and write at a free school provided by the state after normal school hours were over. As a result, at thirteen years old, she had to start life as a Haenyeo.

“We know we’re the last generation to do this,” said Mrs. Goh as the three of them waddled toward their insertion point. “The younger generation won’t do it.”


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