Reviving a Dwindling Tradition Amidst Changing Times
Photographer Peter Ash Lee embarked on a journey to Jeju Island, South Korea, with a mission to bear witness to a unique community of women who have defied the tides of time. Delving into the fascinating world of the Haenyeo, renowned for their exceptional freediving skills in harvesting seafood on the ocean floor, Lee discovered a rich tapestry of culture, resilience, and camaraderie. What started as a quest for personal identity and connection turned into a remarkable visual documentation of a society teetering on the brink of transformation.
A Legacy on the Verge of Extinction
Amongst the multitude of conversations Lee engaged in during his time with the Haenyeo, one stood out, leaving an indelible impression. Ko Ryou-jin, a third-generation Haenyeo and one of Jeju Island's youngest freedivers, confided in Lee about her deep concern—she believed that their treasured traditions were coming to an end. In a poignant moment of vulnerability, she expressed her fears in Korean, saying, "I'm going to be the last one." And then, in English, she declared herself the "last mermaid." These words sparked the inspiration for Lee's latest photography book, aptly titled "The Last Mermaid."
"People often ask me if it’s not too hard. In response, I say that I am happiest when I am diving. I explain that when I hold my breath and look underwater, I find the meaning of my existence."
A Glimpse into a Time-Honored Tradition
Lee's book illuminates the unbreakable bond between the Haenyeo and Jeju Island's semi-matriarchal family structure. With their hand-repaired equipment, these extraordinary women dive into the depths of the sea, expertly using nets and floats instead of modern contraptions. The captivating portraits capture their mastery of diving with the seabed's weighted lead weights and offer an intimate exploration of the magnificent marine life they encounter, from the intricate suckers adorning octopus tentacles to the captivating rows of sea urchins.
A Battle Against the Elements
Jeju Island's rapidly changing climate has brought unprecedented challenges to the Haenyeo community. The warming waters have disrupted their sustainable fishing practices, altering marine ecosystems and leading to the overpopulation of sea urchins. Moreover, as the ocean's inhabitants change, poisonous and predatory creatures like snakes and octopi have encroached upon their territories. Navigating these treacherous waters, the Haenyeo face increasing hostility from their environment while witnessing their once-abundant catches dwindle.
Bridging the Gap and Advocating for Preservation
Lee's time with the Haenyeo instilled in him a deep sense of admiration and responsibility. As he captured their lives through his lens, he marveled at their symbiotic connection with the ocean, their unwavering dedication to tradition, and their sense of community. He was struck by the absence of hierarchy within their ranks, experiencing a harmonious atmosphere unlike other parts of Korea. Lee's exhibition, planned for Seoul in the spring, seeks to raise awareness about the Haenyeo's invaluable cultural heritage and inspire others to cherish and safeguard their legacy.
"I wish for this beautiful Korean cultural tradition of Haenyeo to continue without interruption," writes Ko Ryou Jin in Lee's book. "This is why I hold my ground and share my story, hoping to spark curiosity and encourage others to take on the challenge."
As the Haenyeo community grapples with younger generations' waning interest in their ancient way of life, the future hangs in the balance. Lee remains resolute in his commitment to preserving their extraordinary traditions and honoring the women who have defied conventions for centuries. While the challenges may be formidable, holding onto their heritage and bridging the gap between old and new is a testament to their unyielding spirit and unwavering legacy.