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.

Date
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.”

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Anja Son, 76 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She puts her gloves on and then her hood. She has been diving for 40 years, but has never encouraged any of her children to become free divers as it is a difficult and dangerous profession for little gain. In fact, like most Haenyeo, she must supplement her income with other work; predominantly farming. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

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.”

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Anja Son, 76 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She prepares her mask with a branch of mugwort a common species of aromatic plant. Like saliva or baby shampoo used by many divers, the plant will leave a film on the glass preventing condensation. Mugwort’s odor also has a calming effect on the divers. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Oksun Kim, 80 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She has 4 children but none of them are divers. She has just put on her homemade weight belt. Oxygen tanks have been available for many years but the ecologically-minded Haenyeo continue to free dive to avoid over-fishing and to maintain the ocean’s resources. Ahead of their time for sustainable fishing. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Anja Son, 76 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She puts her gloves on and then her hood. As she adjusts her hood she is careful not to tear the delicate rubber suit. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Oksun Kim, 80 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She adjusts her vintage oval mask. The problem with the old-fashioned masks that they insist on using, is that they cover the nose preventing the Haenyeo from equalising their ears which leads to ear barotrauma, hearing loss and migraines. The Haenyeo also regularly suffer from decompression illness, blackouts, and hypothermia, just some of the reasons why the fishing cooperatives have established strict rules for diving. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Anja Son, 76 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She puts her gloves on then adjusts her hood carefully to avoid tearing the delicate rubber of the suit. She will place a branch of mugwort, a common species of aromatic plant, inside her mask that she’ll discard once in the water. Like saliva or baby shampoo commonly used by scuba divers, the plant leaves a film on the glass preventing condensation. Mugwort’s odor also has a calming effect on the divers. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Wonja Kang, 83 years old comes from Myeonsu-dong village. There is no retirement age for Haenyeo. The vast majority of active Haenyeo are over the age of fifty with many over eighty. They are organised in categories, usually the oldest and more experienced divers go further out to sea and deeper and subsequently have the chance harvesting the more valuable catch. Oxygen tanks have been available for many years but the ecologically-minded Haenyeo continue to free dive to avoid over-fishing and to maintain the ocean’s resources. Ahead of their time for sustainable fishing. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Anja Son, 76 years old, comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She puts her mask on and then vehemently demonstrates how to catch marine delicacies such as rockfish, sea cucumber, octopus and sea urchin, using a long, sharp instrument called a kkakkuri or golgakji. For more stubborn abalone, a bitchang with a piece of string attached is used to pry this valuable catch from the rocks.(Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. 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. Today she was lucky to catch this large specimen. Now 69, she is at the peak of her career, It has taken Soon-ja many years to build up her endurance and fine-tune the hunting techniques that enable her to dive most efficiently. But even the most experienced divers must follow the strict rules imposed by the fishing cooperatives including diving cycles that allow the women to work seven days on and eight days off in order to recuperate. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Hyunsuk Oh, 65 from Seongson, shows off a giant abalone, the most precious catch this morning that she brought back in the special pouch all Haenyeo carry in case of this rare find. While small abalone are abundant and sell well locally, larger specimens are harder to dislodge from the rocks often 10 meters down requiring the strongest Haenyeo to hold their breath for upwards of two minutes.  However, the effort will be well-rewarded as this delicacy will likely find its way to an upscale neighbourhood in Seoul where diners are willing to spend 50,000 won (about $50) for a mouthful. (Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Above

Alain Schroeder: Grandma Divers. Soon Hwa Kim, 71 years old comes from Myeonsu-dong village. She has been diving 60 years catching marine delicacies such as rockfish, sea cucumber, octopus and sea urchin. She pours fresh water over and inside her wetsuit to remove it. The water prevents the rubber of the suit from tearing.(Copyright © Alain Schroeder, 2021)

Become an Extra Nice Supporter

Unlock an inspiring new way to explore It’s Nice That, get your hands on exclusive perks, and help bring meaningful creative projects to life.

Sign up!

Hero Header

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)

Share Article

About the Author

Ayla Angelos

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.

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.