Last year, photographer Jose Jeuland collectively spent three months in Jeju Island, perhaps one of the most popular tourist destinations in South Korea. Similar to other visitors, Jeuland made a beeline for the coasts. He was, however, not there to take snapshots of the cavernous oceans. Jeuland simply ride his rental scooter up and down the coastlines, "while [keeping] a lookout for the Haenyeo".
Haenyeo, or sea women, have been free diving for centuries – without oxygen tanks. "The Haenyeo don wetsuits in black and orange, together with basic diving necessities such as a mask, glove, fins, as well as fishing nets attached to an orange coloured buoy," Jeuland explains.
"[They] dive for up to four to five hours at a time. After diving, the women then prepare their catch of the day... using various sharp utensils to open up sea urchins or simply dry the seaweed under the sun." Only a small portion of their haul is consumed. The majority are sold to restaurants. Tourists who covet Jeju Island's fresh seafood feasts are unknowingly being fed by the most extraordinary hands. More often than not, they have no clue that middle-aged women risked their lives diving for these octopuses, abalones, clams, sea urchins and seaweed.
"The Haenyeo can make dives of 10 metres, 20 metres or 30 metres. The depths are dependent on their diving ability." On average, they dive five times a week, four to five hours each session. "While underwater, the Haenyeo hold their breath for two to three minutes." And there are serious health repercussion for these ladies. "Often, due to various decompression and pressure-related issues, the Haenyeo women suffer from headaches," Jeuland observed that the divers bring medication on their daily diving expeditions. It may not be ideal, but the ocean is perhaps their only source of income. "[They] also dive during the winter season."
Once, when Jeuland was visiting, "Jeju Island was hit by a massive storm, followed by prolonged periods of strong winds. The waters were choppy and posed a grave danger to the divers." The Haenyeo were forced to take a break.
This time around, the seas were tame, which mean that Jeuland was allowed to join the expeditions. "Sometimes after a dive in the freezing waters to capture underwater shots, they would share with me their cakes, as well as a hot drink. Sometimes they will give me some of the fresh seafood they caught from the ocean."
But it wasn't easy to break the ice with these women. Despite being in the media spotlight for the past couple years, they remain wary of foreigners and cameras. "I have to admit that it was not easy," Jeuland quips. He repeatedly visited them for days, communicating through hand signs before the women warmed up to him.
To him, it was all worth it – capturing, perhaps, the final few generations of Haenyeo. "As more locals from Jeju Island make the shift to Seoul to carve out a future for themselves, there is a lack of interest from future generations to continue the Haenyeo tradition."
View Jose Jeuland's Haenyeo exhibition from 28th October to 23rd November 2017 at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore.
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