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Into the Deep: Ian Baguskas’s Mythical Haenyo Diver

Haenyo Emerging for Air by Ian Baguskas
8"x10" ($24) | 11"x14" ($60) | 16"x20" ($240) | 24"x30" ($1200) | 40"x50" ($5000)

Dive into Haenyo Emerging for Air, part of Ian Baguskas’s series documenting the dying tradition of the female deep-sea divers of Jeju Island, South Korea. Haenyo directly translates to “sea women”. These intrepid women perform perilous work to provide for their families, spending five hours a day diving up to 30 meters deep without air tanks. Their objective? Harvesting the valuable sea life on the ocean floor, such as abalone and sea urchins. Haenyo can hold their breath for more than three minutes.

Because women traditionally occupy this esteemed role, the Haenyo are symbolic of the semi-matriarchal society on the island, one that differs greatly from the patriarchy of mainland South Korea. Haenyo have also played a role in mermaid folklore on Jeju—emerging from the deep with their treasures, communicating with song and whistles. Though their status on the island borders on being mythic, the Haenyo tradition is in danger of extinction. With increasing industrialization and better opportunities available, fewer women are choosing Haenyo as a profession.

Traveling extensively and with 4x5 and 6x7 film cameras in tow, Baguskas's work broaches ideas about modern exploration and offers a particularly pensive, personal way of seeing. The figure at the center of today’s release is just close enough for a viewer to register the details of the diver and the floating buoy, but at an onlooker’s distance. Among his 20x200 collection are a number of images with a similar perspective, the effect of which is to firmly ground us in observation, to remove the us from the action so we have no choice but to take up residence in the in-between.

A longtime 20x200 artist, Baguskas has a gift for shooting bodies of water and capturing a sort of pregnant stillness, beautifully weighted by implication and association. Perhaps that’s why the ocean lends itself especially well to his artist’s eye—what is invisible beneath its aqueous surface is as much the subject as the visible focal points. Liminality is his wheelhouse. It’s fitting then that he would photograph the Haenyo, whose lives straddle land and sea. In this edition, our subject is literally suspended between those two worlds. Gaze into the image’s quietly absorbing depths and you may have to remind yourself to come up for air.

With art for everyone,
Jen Bekman + Team 20x200