Haenyeo: Jeju legends

14 Nov

In a region of the world where Confucian ideals still exist and women are often considered inferior live a group of women, some well into their golden years, who have been defying that philosophy long before the well known women’s movement of the 1960s. They did it not for political or social reasons but out of necessity. The 해녀 or Haenyeo (pronounced “HEN-yuh”) are sometimes also referred to as “Sea Women” or “Mermaids of Jeju”. At a time when the labor of men was so highly taxed that they made very little money it was up to their wives to become the main source of income for their families; often leaving the men to stay home and care for the children. For what was probably the first time in Korean culture baby girls were considered to have more value than their brothers.
The Haenyeo are nothing less than extraordinary. In the 1930’s they were at the forefront of the movement to stop Japan’s occupation of South Korea. Which is a further testament to their defiance of the roles of women in Korean society at the time and some would say even now. Not to mention being role models for women and girls everywhere. Everyday at work they plunge to the ocean floor often holding their breath for up to 2 minutes with nothing but an old fashioned diving mask and the skills they have been honing since childhood. It is easy to see why photographer Douglas MacDonald was attracted to these women as subjects. Here is what he had to say about his experience with these amazing women.

Haenyeo of Jeju, South Korea with octopus, Douglas MacDonald

1. When and why did you first come to Korea?

I first came to Korea in 2002 because I had been an English teacher in Japan in the 90′s and really missed it. Also, photography had become boring for me in my hometown of Vancouver, and I wanted to get back to Asia to photograph the incredible cultures and street life, and document the speed of change in the region.

2. How did you first come across the Haenyeo?

I didn’t know anything about these divers when I first came to Jeju but one day I was taking a walk along the eastern coastline of the island and I saw a long line of these women walking down the road carrying their nets on their backs. I followed them to the next town and watched them empty their nets and clean their catch. Lots of laughter and camaraderie. Didn’t get a lot of good photos that day but they left a strong impression on me and I knew from that point that I wanted to pursue them further photographically.

3. We are mostly used to Koreans asking to take pictures of us, so how was it when you decided to turn the tables?

My first experience with the Haenyeo was not a good one. I was yelled at and basically told to get lost. Not a good start, but I thought about how I would feel if some stranger started taking my picture after I spent all day in frigid waters with nothing on but a skin tight wetsuit.

They gradually got used to seeing me around them. I learned when to take pictures and when to leave them alone. It’s been a real challenge to photograph them in a natural way. My first few minutes around them are always critical. After that, they usually get a little self conscious around me.

Haenyeo from Jeju,South Korea4. Do most of these women choose this profession or is it a generational thing?

For these women, choosing the life of a Haenyeo can be a generational thing but for the most part, they do this job as a way to support their families. They can make more money than they would working as a cashier at a supermarket or department store, for example.

These days, though, younger women are steering away from careers as Haenyeo because of the difficult work conditions. The youngest ones today are in their 40′s. It’s a dying profession that we probably won’t see in a decade or so.

5. You obviously really enjoy East Asian culture. Are there any other countries you have lived in or would like to live in besides Japan and Korea?

Yes, I love Asia. Other places I have enjoyed are Cambodia and Indonesia. Wonderful people! Would love to live in both of those countries for a few months.

6. What, in your mind, is the legacy of the Haenyeo?

The legacy of the Haenyeo is the impact their work and way of life has on older women all over the world. Their incredible drive and work ethic. Their desire to work for their families at an age when many retire to a life of leisure. It’s awe inspiring.

“This is the story of these people who have to lead their lives fighting nature. This story is as eternal as the waves lapping the shore line.”
-Intro from “The Seaside Village (1965)” (갯마을/Gaetmaeul)

Su-yong Kim’s 1965 film “The Seaside Village” tells the story of the hard lives of the men and women of Jeju who are destined to live and die by the sea at a time before Haenyeo culture was appreciated like it is today. Fortunately, more and more people are realizing the importance of Haenyeo culture, and that it needs to be preserved. In 20 years there may not be any more Haenyeo but their important role in Korean history will carry on. If you are interested in finding out more about the Heanyeo, and happen to be visiting Jeju you can stop by the Jeju Haenyeo Museum.

To see more of Douglas MacDonald’s pictures or follow his latest work check out the following links:


Haenyeo from Jeju, South Korea

Haenyo from Jeju, South Korea

Haenyeo from Jeju, South Korea

All images by Douglas MacDonald

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4 Responses to “Haenyeo: Jeju legends”

  1. Rhonda November 15, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Awesome! Great photos too, really liked this one.

  2. Gregory November 15, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Well done, Doug! Great interview.

    • admin November 15, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Doug November 30, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    Thanks Gregory!

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