London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Exhibition news: Baek Kyung-sook’s donated Haenyeo photographs, at Jeju Stone Park

Baek Kyung-sook poster

What has an exhibition in Jeju Stone Park got to do with the normal remit of London Korean Links? Above everything else, friendship. On my first trip to Korea back in 2001 I met the future director of Jeju Stone Park, Baek Un-cheol, who at the time was in charge of his private museum of Jeju stone culture, Mokseokwon. As an aside, he served me the best Korean green tea I have ever tasted. I have known the photographer Baek Kyung-sook for a similar amount of time, and have had a keen interest in her work with the haenyeo, another subject that has held my interest for a while. I’m also glad that the essay accompanying the exhibition is by another friend, the curator of the Lee Jung-seob museum in Seogwipo, Jeon Eun-ja.

Having spent up to 20 years on her haenyeo project (her first photographic encounters with them were in 1987, and I remember visiting an exhibition of some of her work in New York State sometime around 2005) Baek Kyung-sook is leaving it behind her to focus on her ceramics, and is donating her photo archive to Jeju Stone Park, where it will be conserved along with the museum’s other artifacts relating to Jeju’s culture.

A celebratory exhibition of the collection, marking its recent donation, runs from 9 September to 8 November. Do pay it, and the park itself, a visit.

Baek Kyung-sook’s Jeju Haenyeo photographs

Jeju Stone Park | 2023 Namjoro | Jocheon-eup | Jeju-si |
9 September – 8 November 2016

Baek Kyung-sook: Seogwipo, Bomok-dong, 1996
Baek Kyung-sook: Seogwipo, Bomok-dong, 1996

Jeju Stone Park is delighted to host an exhibition celebrating the donation of Baek Kyung-sook’s collection of photographs of Jeju’s diving women.

Capturing someone’s life with a camera has much to do with the intensity of perspective with which the photographer perceives that life. That is to say that such intense perspective looks at images of the present as they are in the moment. People appreciate the value of this as a symbolic record of the time. In other words, inattentive daily life becomes a symbolic discourse through documentary photographic work. Daily life is the origin of every culture as well as a space of communication, producing the foundational cultures of the time. Foundational cultures hold the rich fragrance of people’s lives. Until the 1970s, Jeju’s representative women’s culture was haenyeo culture. Now this has changed just as other cultures have, and it is even now in an existential crisis, although haenyeo culture still symbolizes Jeju women’s culture.

Around the year 1986, Baek Kyung-sook was taking photos as a hobby. At that time, looking at her photos, people around her said, “The composition is interesting,” “Her observations are excellent,” or “She has a unique perspective,” encouraging her to continue her photographic work in earnest. Meanwhile, she took a trip to Jeju in 1987. She saw haenyeo for the first time, and they left a deep impression on her. She felt their wild nature and sacred spirit as if they were legendary Amazons. It was as if the motherhood of Seolmundae Halmang, who had five hundred sons, was living through the bodies of the haenyeo.

Majoring in fine arts at Fine Art College in America in 1990, she studied a variety of genres such as photography, sculpture, painting, and more. She focused on photography from her sophomore year. She also worked for a newspaper company for two years as a freelancer and a full-time photographer, but she quit because she had doubts about her photographic work meeting her artistic outlook. Around that time, she recalled the haenyeo images from her memory and she couldn’t dismiss the duty urging her not to ignore their lives. Being resolutely determined, she visited Jeju to undertake haenyeo documentary photography. She began her work in Hahyodong, Seogwipo, in 1992. Hahyodong was the very place she met Jeju haenyeo for the first time in 1987.

After that, Baek Kyung Sook visited Jeju once or twice a year, staying from May until rainy season or sometimes 15 days or a month in the fall, diving deeply into the lives of the haenyeo. Even though she stayed in Jeju for a month, she couldn’t work more than 10 days due to the tides and weather. She sometimes visited Jeju from the US during the semester. It was like the USA and Jeju were connected by an umbilical cord. Haenyeo, who stayed away from her as an outsider and didn’t open their hearts at first, gradually became her mother. The motherhood of a haenyeo mother who fed her with precious abalone caught with desperate struggle was of a melancholy beauty and she melted into her work over time.

Baek Kyung-sook
Courtesy Baek Kyung-sook

Baek Kyung-sook mostly worked in Hahyo, Gosan, Namwon, Wimi, Udo Island, Gangjeong, and Bophwan, and saw the true lives of Jeju haenyeo and their power of life. The stories of the lives of the haenyeo stimulate her sensitivity. She thought of the identity of the Jeju haenyeo all the time. She never conjured up or embellished anything about the women’s lives, rather capturing the dignified haenyeo leading independent lives in a harsh environment. She also struggled with haenyeo in the sea, joining them to photograph them underwater even when the waves were rough and sharp like blades. Photography is not about capturing the figure as an object, but about presenting an image of the object. What she recorded was the very true reality of the lives of the haenyeo.

She took photos of bultuk (a structure where haenyeo used fire to keep warm after diving) on Udo Island. Every place is a space of life as well as a real scene of life. Bultuk, the scene of life of the haenyeo, is a little universe within which haenyeo culture lives and breathes, and order exists. This is the place where they wait for tides for diving, warm themselves after diving, exchange and discuss issues among themselves. The bultuk is the place where they start and end their labor.

As haenyeo say, “diving is as dangerous as going to the otherworld with a coffin upon your back.” However, they accept diving as a destiny for their family. Haenyeo diving into the water have a grim appearance like a knight drawing a sword. Haenyeo, carrying seaweed or turban shells several times their weight, and looking just as much part of nature as basalt rock, remind us of a woman from mythology. The shaking composition of a haenyeo taking medicine to endure water pressure highlights the health crisis they face. They pray to the dragon god by sending onto the sea a straw boat with offerings after rituals. The shining sea over the haenyeo is where their wishes are met. Their deep wrinkles tell us of the hard life they have led. Though their clothes and gloves are full of patches, they have lived more affluent lives than any other. The gut shamanic ritual, sending the haenyeo who lived a wild life back to nature, is heartening but it is part of the process of life.

Now the marine environment, the workplace of the haenyeo, is not what it used to be. Their ‘taewak’ has changed from gourd to styrofoam. Nevertheless, they don’t go against the laws of nature. They know enough about the sea to decide when to dive or when not to dive. They also know where to go or where not to go. They live with the sea as one and observe the sounds, colors, and changes in the sea. Haenyeo commune with the signals of nature that they read in the sea and they lead their lives for their families and themselves.

For Baek Kyung-sook, documentary photography is to vividly dredge the reality of these women’s lives. This is the aesthetics she seeks through her documentary photography. The difference between artists and common people lies in the depth of observation. Observation goes beyond interest and focuses on harmony with the object. Photos are not taken with skill. They are taken with the eyes (intuition) looking right at the reality and heart of the object (aesthetic discernment). That is the way to revive the reality of the object. Artists should approach the major factors relating to our daily lives such as culture, nature, history, and more, and convey these frankly and with valor. This is artist Baek Kyung-sook’s opinion. Her work on haenyeo is also a way of finding the ‘true me’ through the lives of the haenyeo. For Baek Kyung-sook, the haenyeo were like the teachers of life as well as mythical figures.

Only with their stunning will to dive into the dark sea, can the haenyeo attract people’s interest in them. However, if they are seen merely through their appearance, their true lives cannot be understood. The effort to understand the object with interest should come before technical expression. True art is not to distort and beautify reality in the name of expression, but to find healthy beauty in reality, and further, it is not to interpret the object, but to deeply understand it.

If we look closely at Baek Kyung-sook’s photos, we can read the artist’s spirit to earnestly approach the lives of haenyeo. Baek Kyung-sook, who breathed with Jeju haenyeo for 10 years, tells us that Jeju haenyeo have created their own world to near perfection, and led their lives which they have accepted as destiny.

Baek Kyung-sook’s donation of her haenyeo photos is an expression of her respect for the lives of Jeju haenyeo.

Jeon Eun-ja (Curator, Lee Jung-seop Gallery)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.