New York-based photographer Peter Ash Lee, known for his evocative captures of fashion's fleeting moments, steered his lens with his newly launched book "The Last Mermaid" toward a timeless tale on Jeju Island in 2018.
Jeju, often likened to Korea's tranquil paradise, cradles a deep-rooted tradition within its cerulean waters - the Haenyo, or the women of the sea. These women, many in their golden years between 60 to 80, become an embodiment of the ocean. With unwavering spirit, they plunge into the deep, seeking nature's hidden treasures such as sea urchins, conch, and octopi, using age-old techniques passed down through generations.
Amidst these seasoned divers, Ko Ryou Jin, a younger Haenyo, swims alongside her mother. The gentle ebb and flow of the waves carry stories of old, and with them, Ko's reflection on a poignant possibility — she could be the end of an era.
During his sojourn, Lee bore witness to the Haenyo's daily dance with the ocean. From the pre-dawn rituals to the evening's introspective moments, each day unfolded a new chapter. This odyssey was transformed into a visual narrative, seamlessly blending the island's raw allure with subtle touches reflecting Lee's fashion sensibilities.
Reflecting on his experience, Lee remarks, “The Haenyo's fortitude is a testament to their bond with the sea. Yet, modern challenges cast shadows over these traditions. From extended dive hours due to marine ecosystem shifts to unfamiliar sea inhabitants making their presence felt, the oceanic balance is in flux.”
Ko Ryou Jin, while a guardian of this tradition, is also its herald, striving to keep the Haenyo legacy alive even in the face of evolving times. Her soft utterance, "I might be the concluding note," underscores the delicate balance of maintaining tradition amidst change.
To her, the ocean signifies more than heritage; it's a haven of memories and moments. In Jeju, where matriarchal echoes resonate, these women stand as pillars of resilience and strength. For Lee, this exploration was a journey inward. It connected him to a narrative intrinsic to his lineage, reminiscent of cherished times spent with elder family figures.
"The Last Mermaid" by Peter Ash Lee is set to unveil this November, inviting readers into a realm where tradition, transformation, and tranquility converge.