Alain Schroeder takes us behind the scenes of the Haenyeo, an over 60s group of female divers
Grandma Divers lenses an age-old profession of harvesting seaweed, mollusks and other sea delicacies by women all aged 60 or over.
- Ayla Angelos
- 9 February 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
In the Korean province of Jeju, there’s a group of women who dive as deep as ten metres underwater to collect seafood and underwater delights. These women are called the Haenyeo (translated as ‘sea women’), and are continuing a tradition that’s been kept alive for centuries.
Scavenging for mollusks, seaweed and various other sea life, the Haenyeo dates back to 434 A.D, where what was exclusively a male profession evolved into one that was majority female. By the 18th century, female divers outnumbered men, with women replacing their husbands as the primary labourer. At this time, the Haenyeo were the head of the household, while men would look after the children and go shopping – the traditional, western gender roles were in reverse. In modern times, the Haenyeo are celebrated as a national treasure and most of the women are over the age of 60; a culture that photographer Alain Schroder lenses in his most recent series, Grandma Divers.
Alain first visited the South Korean island in March 2019, and witnessed women emerging out of the water in a protected bay with a basalt (volcanic) rock in the distance. He began photographing with a telephoto lens, while the background was pitch black. “With the wetsuit,” he tells It’s Nice That of how his series first began, “that black on black was visually interesting. That was the start, but it was not the right season, so I decided to go back in September.” Upon doing so, Alain encountered a further problem: a tropical storm, meaning they weren’t able to dive for a week. “With only a few days left, I decided to buy a piece of black cloth and shoot the divers in front of it wherever I could. On one particular day, it was raining quite hard so the ladies were waiting to dive. I was lucky to be able to take advantage of that moment.”
This was the catalyst to the development of his series, an overwhelmingly joyful yet stark and contrasted depiction of an age-old tradition. The Haenyeo, sadly, is hanging by a thread, given the context of modernisation, the increase in technology and different professions now available to the generations proceeding them. These women free dive up to 20 metres, holding their breath for up to two minutes in the process. Alain learnt much about their culture while visiting, and came to the understanding that it’s now a highly regulated occupation, organised by local fisheries. “Divers adhere to strict rules regarding who can dive, when, where, what they can harvest and allowed quantities,” he says, noting how most of the women have been diving for the last 30-40 years, some even longer. “It is a difficult, risky lifestyle that is rapidly disappearing as young women choose to pursue other careers. Most of the divers told me they did not encourage their children to dive.”
Working long, wet and arduous days, the Haenyeo can spend up to seven hours in the cold, brisk waters, fighting the currents for their share of the sea’s edible offering. “Divers are separated by category and only the older, more experienced divers can go further out and deeper,” Alain says. “Today, they dive according to the tides and the weather, it’s much more regulated than in the past. You can see the difficulty of this lifestyle on their (wrinkled) faces.”
Alain has long been lensing cultures far from his own. Born in Belgium he began his career as a freelance sports photographer in the late 70s. In 1989 he founded Reporters, a well-known photo agency in Belgium. After catching the “travel bug” from a trip to Afghanistan when he was 18, and selling his shares in the photo agency in 2011, he continued to travel the world and work on his own personal projects – that which turned a focus on social issues and human interest stories. So for Alain to venture to the island of Jeju and photograph such a profoundly long-standing culture like the Haenyeo is customary, and done so in a considerable, attentive manner. “I’m most interested in the in-depth reporting of these stories, relating to people and their environment. Various cultures, modes of living, rituals and customs fascinate me. I strive to tell a story in ten to 15 pictures capturing the essence of an instant with a sense of light and perfect framing.”
With Grandma Divers, Alain is recording a piece of ancient culture. The Haenyeo has transformed the region into a semi-matriarchal society, with numbers dwindling in the 70s due to the increase in opportunities: farming mandarin oranges and developing tourism, as Alain explains. “There are still about 4,000 ladies who make a living collecting delicacies from the sea,” he adds, stating how this tradition is inscribed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Culture Heritage and how there’s also a dedicated museum in Hado-ri, Guiwa-eup, located on the island. The subjects’ expressions are malleable throughout his imagery, marking it as a series that’s as much informative as it is a personal, inimitable documentation of history. “I had the vision of the portraits I wanted (black on black in black and white) and I was lucky to get them.”
Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Soon Hwa Kim, 71 years old comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She has been diving 60 years. She has one son and daughter but she did not encourage her daughter to follow her path because the work is too hard. She has just put on her homemade weight belt and is preparing to dive despite heavy rain. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.