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Meet The Badass, Eco-Feminist Free Divers Of South Korea

Since 2012, photographer Hyung S. Kim has been snapping South Korea's haenyeo, female free divers. This sisterhood of divers are facing extinction.

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The exhibition "Haenyeo: Women of the Sea" presents photography by Hyung S. Kim and captures the the extraordinarily lives of South Korean female free divers called haenyeo on Jeju Island, South Korea.

Haenyeo are the female divers who harvest seafood by diving 65 feet to the ocean floor without any diving equipment or breathing apparatus. Haenyeo are a part of Korea’s unique indigenous cultural heritage; their history dates back to 1105.

“The haenyeo culture is not simply an occupation, but is truly a spirit and lifestyle of Jeju Island that embodies the entire depth of the culture. I have tried to capture this essence of the women.” –Hyung S. Kim

Hyung set up a plain white backdrop near the shore, and persuaded divers to have their pictures taken as they emerged from the water, usually after six hours of work.

Until the 1970s, the number of haenyeo was around 14,000, but currently, those numbers have fallen drastically to 4,000. More than half the haenyeo are over age 70; the oldest woman photographed in the exhibition is 90. At the current rate of decline, the haenyeo tradition is likely to die out completely within the next 20 years. Last year, South Korea applied to have the haenyeo added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

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“The haenyeo are shown exactly as they are, tired and breathless. But, at the same time, they embody incredible mental and physical stamina, as the work itself is so dangerous; every day they cross the fine line between life and death.” –Hyung

"Haenyeo know that the sea is a subject to be tendered and preserved, instead of being mass harvested. The knowledge and wisdom they obtained has been passed down to future generations. They are also known as ‘Eco-Feminists’ because they are the primary providers of their families and have formed a powerful female community and sisterhood." –Hyung

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Visit the Korean Cultural Service for additional information on haenyeo and the exhibition.