Looking at Life From the Other Side of the “Plexiglass”
Photo: tidell in purple, october 2014
In 2000, photographer Hatnim Lee began a project documenting the customers at her parent’s liquor store in Washington, D.C. The child of working-class Korean immigrants, Lee has long been a part of the family business, working behind a wall of plexiglass that stands between the cash register and the customers.
Instilled with the strong work ethic of her parents, Lee began Plexiglass, a fifteen-year photography project, documenting the customers who crossed her path. Whether alcoholics or sex workers, college students or government employees, Lee’s portraits speak to the profound humanity of her subjects. She speaks with Crave about her work, revealing a deep and profound side of daily life.
I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk about Plexiglass, as I absolutely love this series of work. Please talk about the inspiration for the photographs. What made you decide to document the people who shopped at your parents’ liquor store?
Hatnim Lee: My parents have always had a business since before I was born. I grew up in all of them but when I started photography in 2000, they had a liquor store. There are so many characters, personalities, situations to observe and interact with… so it was natural to start photographing them. I was also working there during college so I had to make do with whatever time I had and when you’re stuck behind a bullet proof glass for 13 hours a day, can’t get out much! So, I just started shooting the customers (with my camera).
When did you begin the series, and are you still working on it?
The series began in January 2000 and ended in December of 2015 when my parents retired and sold the business.
Please talk about the liquor store as a milieu. For most of us it is a place to come and go, but for you and your family it is bigger than that. What are some of the more interesting, unlikely, and unusual things that have occurred for you as a photographer shooting on site?
I always like watching my Mom and Dad’s relationship with the customers. My Mom is the diva so she has her favorite customers. Usually ones who never complain about prices. She gets along with the gay customers because they love her sass and her hair and makeup is always immaculate. My Dad gets along with everyone but especially the homeless customers because he’ll give them credit. My parents are super Christian but my Dad drinks. It’s funny that the customers offer him weed. They’ll give him a sample from time to time. A mini spliff (trial). Sometimes it gets heated in there. Physical fights, racial tension, it’s mostly lots of screaming and cursing. The customers I dislike, I refuse to photograph. The ones I hate 99% of the time end up in jail.
One of my favorite things about your work is how beautiful everyone looks; not just handsome or pretty, but radiant and full of life. You clearly enjoy engaging with people, children, and animals—and you bring out the best in them. What is your favorite thing about the act of taking a portrait of someone?
I like what the camera can do to people. I want to talk to people and meet dogs and make babies smile. I think I see things in a pretty light because I want to. I am specifically drawn to children, older people, and animals because they seem honest. But a philosopher once told me it’s because they’re helpless. I don’t know if that’s true.
Please talk about what it’s like seeing the same people over a period of time: do you continue to photograph them over long periods of time? What are some of the things you’ve discovered through photography about looking at people as the years pass on by?
I love following people’s lives. I think it’s kind of like being able to speak another language with them through the camera. Depends what they’re wearing, how they’ve aged, if their weight has fluctuated, the whole presentation can tell you a lot about someone and what they’re going through. The way they are avoiding your eye contact, how severe their anxiety is that day, if they got laid last night or recently laid off from their job…etc. Circumstances change people but the core is always there. That’s always nice to see again.
All photos: ©Hatnim Lee
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.