Up close and personal with Jejudo Island's female divers

Up close and personal with Jejudo Island's female divers
A photograph of haenyeo on exhibition at the POSCO Art Museum through July 3.

Larger-than-life photographs of Jejudo Island's iconic female divers in wetsuits hang on the walls of the second and basement floor spaces of POSCO Art Museum on Tehran-ro in southern Seoul, the women's weathered faces bearing witness to a lifetime of struggles with the sea. The photographs are part of "Mother in the Sea, Haenyeo," an exhibition of 165 works by celebrated photographer Joon Choi, running through July 3.

Choi captures the faraway look in the eyes of an aged diver just out of the water, her exertion apparent in the deep furrows of her face. He catches yet another haenyeo, or jamsu as the women divers are also called, in a moment of dance, her lean body slightly angled, her hands holding up her flippers in a seemingly joyful, rhythmic movement.

The occasional landscapes of Jejudo Island interspersed among the portraits capture the wind blowing through a field of grass, the quiet calm of a steely gray sea before a storm ― raw elements of nature that these special women endure every day.

The intimate portraits are a surprise given the exclusive nature of the haenyeo community. "I was able to get those pictures because I lived with them for a year," said Choi at his studio in Gaepo-dong, Seoul, on May 26.

Living among the subjects is not the sole explanation, however. A week earlier, on Jejudo Island, I had had a glimpse of Choi's uncanny ability to get complete strangers to pose for him ― cajoling and coaxing them, pulling them this way, pushing them that way. It was marvelous to witness how the famously taciturn haenyeo could be moved to break into a big, bright smile by this man.

Perhaps it was the charisma exuding from his small but tight frame that made the women drop their guard? Perhaps it was the pleading yet commanding tone in his voice that got the reluctant women to do his bidding?

At his studio, Choi has a simple answer: Love. "Whoever I may be facing, my bottom-line philosophy is love for my fellow men," he said, quickly adding, "Maybe this allows me to get away with being a dictator!" with a laugh.

Upon returning to Seoul in 1988 following years of studying in Japan and working in New York, Choi took the commercial photography scene here by storm. Armed with the latest know-how and trends from New York, the city at the vanguard of the advertising industry, Choi quickly became the most sought-after photographer, fetching record sums for his innovative works.

The name Joon Choi quickly became associated with a Western mood, special effects and a "sizzle," according to Choi. He was particularly favoured for corporate PR campaigns and by financial firms and hotels.

After some 15 years as the country's most successful commercial photographer, however, Choi became disillusioned. "When celebrities came in to do shoots for commercials, I couldn't breathe. It was showing off on both sides. It felt empty," he said. "I asked myself if I could do something that felt meaningful to me. I asked myself, 'What is my standard of aesthetics?'" he recalled. "But there was also the question of the need for a livelihood."

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