The elderly women gather at the seaside bulteok, a stone structure with a fire pit and rest facilities. They put on their two-piece freediving wetsuits spotted with hand-sewn repair patches, then gather up their humble equipment: small harpoons, net baskets, and Styrofoam flotation devices to keep their nets afloat. Next, they file down over the jagged volcanic rocks, chattering and singing, and don their ancient oval dive masks before, finally, plunging into the rough South Korean sea.
The haenyeo are the thousands of Korean women, mostly on rocky Jeju Island off the coast of South Korea, who make a living by diving without scuba equipment to scoop seafood off the ocean floor. (A similar community, known as ama, exists in Japan.) The average age of these freedivers is 75―which is especially amazing given the physical demands of the work. For around five hours a day during the fishing season, the haenyeo dive to collect octopus, sea mustard, sea cucumber, and, if they’re big enough, abalone. In Jeju, haenyeo generally go under for about 30 seconds at a time, although some say they can hold their breath for up to 2 minutes.
The haenyeo fishing technique has existed in Korea since at least the sixth century. It wasn’t always a women’s pursuit. But women started to outnumber male divers by the 18th century, partly because conflict on the island reduced the numbers of men, and because women’s greater reserves of body fat made them better able to handle the cold water. These days, men do get involved: It’s common for husbands of haenyeo to wait on the shores for their wives to finish diving, then help weigh and sort the catch.
Culturally, the haenyeo style of freediving is bound up in local shamanistic beliefs and ancient legends connected to the sea. Economically, it’s helped to sustain Jeju Island, although it’s common for Jeju’s haenyeo to also farm small agricultural plots. The women generally sell their catch through a fishery cooperative, and earn around $12,500 USD a year from it.
In modern South Korea, the haenyeo have experienced mild stigmatization for being working-class women who do manual labor in a culture where women are generally prized for being delicate. But five years ago, Y. Zin Kim—who claims to be Koreas's first female professional underwater photographer—began the Happy Haenyeo photography project, which captures the haenyeo’s extreme lives with tender nuance. And at a time when the tradition is nearing possible extinction, Kim’s photos are making a splash around the world. They’ve since been collected in the bilingual Korean/English photography book Haenyeo- Women Divers of Korea, published in October 2017.
Kim, who is based in Seoul and teaches diving in addition to working as a photographer, began the project in 2012 to honor and preserve the unique haenyeo culture, she told Broadly. But it wasn’t easy to convince the haenyeo to trust her at first. “They wondered why a small and young city girl wanted to photograph them,” she recalled. And the divers were especially wary of the large camera that Kim was always toting around.
Kim was intimidated, too. The haenyeo are known for being very (to some, inappropriately) loud women. And Kim found that to be true. But she also learned that the build-up of air pressure in the divers’ ears meant that noises were muffled; they had to speak more loudly than usual to hear each other. So, Kim started to raise her own voice as well.
Eventually, the women began to recognize Kim’s camera as her equivalent to their own heavy nets—just a tool to pursue a passion. As Kim chronicles in her book, trust gradually developed between them, and eventually the divers took on a motherly character, always making sure she wasn’t cold, hungry, or uncomfortable as she photographed them out in the sea. “I just tried to take time and wait comfortably, waiting until they welcomed me,” Kim recalled.
Ultimately, Kim says, the key to honestly capturing the haenyeo was in recognizing both their softness and toughness. It’s common for Koreans to emphasize how poor, old, and unusually hardy the divers are, which adds to the stigma that’s sometimes been attached to their work, explains Kim. But one day, when one of the divers insisted on applying lipstick before Kim took her photo, it clicked: “They’re also just women like me,” said Kim.
The haenyeo opened up to Kim about how other photographers had captured them carrying heavy caches of abalone, tired and with unphotogenic expressions on their faces―only natural given their heavy loads. But they wanted to be seen as attractive; and Kim wanted to capture their grace, along with the sisterly camaraderie of their diving collectives, rather than just their grit.
Kim’s photos show the haenyeo both working and relaxing, in groups and alone, lugging heavy loads on land and swimming like underwater ballerinas. Rays of sunlight shine through many of her underwater photos, creating romantic spotlights with striking contrast to the murkiness of the water and the dark tangles of seaweed and shellfish surrounding her subjects. In her book, one full-page photo captures a woman upside down, a purple shirt over her wetsuit. With white-gloved hands, she pokes through sea plants, looking for valuable seafood—a modern mermaid of sorts.
Like the haenyeo, Kim has embraced her Korean heritage while challenging certain male-dominated aspects of the culture. In 2008, she decided to start photographing underwater, an interest she says was sparked by staring at her bedroom poster of Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover. But at the time, that was an entirely male industry in Korea, she says.
In Kim’s early years as a photographer, her projects included Korean dramas and album covers. To move into the niche of underwater photography, she studied in the UK, where she was mentored and inspired by underwater art photographer Zena Holloway. “I wanted to become the Korean Zena Holloway,” Kim said. While her work still includes on-land portraiture and TV shoots, she’s become known for her focus on underwater settings, like wedding dress models styled as mermaids.
That underwater expertise has also made Kim a perfect match for the haenyeo. And her project came just in time—as the haenyeo community and tradition is rapidly dwindling. In part because of the dangerous and sometimes deadly nature of the work, as well as changing social and economic conditions, the number of haenyeo has plummeted from around 14,000 in 1970 to 4,000 in 2015. Even in the course of Kim’s project, she says the community experienced several deaths. And only a small number of young women are currently interested in learning the trade, which has traditionally been passed down from generation to generation.
But the winnowing away of the haenyeo tradition may not be all bad, said Kim. There’s a risk of over-romanticizing work that’s demanding and occasionally fatal. And, of course, individuals shouldn’t need to depend on physical labor into their 90s.
The haenyeo tradition could very well be wiped out within a few decades. But the practice will live on in Kim’s photographs—and Kim herself is now carrying on a new kind of tradition for women working in Korea’s waters.
This article originally appeared on Broadly.