‘The other side of the glass’: Portraits in a liquor store

Published 8:19 PM EST, Sun November 29, 2015

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For years, Hatnim Lee has been photographing customers at her parents' liquor store

She called her portrait series "Plexiglass" because of the barrier between them

(CNN) —  

For many, a liquor store is just a place to buy liquor. But for photographer Hatnim Lee, it is so much more. It is also a place for portraiture.

Lee started taking photos of customers at her parents’ liquor store in Washington about 15 years ago. The title of her photo series, “Plexiglass,” comes from the fact that the majority of Lee’s portraits were made from behind the store’s acrylic glass – a solid, transparent plastic used for security.

“It’s just kind of interesting,” Lee said. “Other people don’t really get to see it, experience it – to be on the other side of the glass.”

By taking portraits of customers from behind the counter, Lee shows that her parents’ liquor store encompasses two distinct experiences. Not only are there transactions of commodities taking place, but there are transactions of connections – and the camera becomes a tool to break down the barrier between the buyer and the seller.

Photographer Hatnim Lee
Hatnim Lee
Photographer Hatnim Lee

“I think when something’s there to come between a human connection, it almost makes you more curious in a way,” Lee said. “It’s almost like if you have a barrier up, it makes you almost want it more, want to know them more. … I ask (customers) for something so much more than their money. I ask them to be vulnerable for me or to share a piece of them with me. If you’re taking a person’s portrait, it’s asking a lot of somebody.”

Lee says that what she enjoys most about her customers’ portraits is how she is able to see the evolution of people. Her observations place her at the forefront of a range of experiences and emotions.

“You see all kinds of stuff. They’re very interesting people,” said Lee, who has helped at her parents’ store ever since she was a teenager. “There are so many customers that I talk to every day when I am working. Just being able to actually have documented it is pretty special, because we forget a lot of things visually.”

She sees the joyful growth of some of the store’s visitors. But she also sees the disappearance of others. Kim, pictured in photo No. 3 in the gallery above, was one of Lee’s favorite customers.

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“He was someone that I really connected to because of his personality,” Lee said. “I took his picture many times for maybe over five or six years or something. I think that image is closer to me in a lot of ways because he passed away. … When I see his picture, it has a very special meaning to me.”

Lee has often gotten in trouble for taking customers’ portraits and talking to them at length because they would then end up staying in the store “forever,” she says.

“The most stressful thing about taking pictures in my parents’ liquor store is honestly my mother or my father yelling at me because I’m at work,” Lee said. “They just don’t really understand it. … Not because they don’t appreciate photography, but because it’s so everyday norm for them.”

Lee’s parents are retiring at the end of the month, so she said her photo series is basically complete. Through “Plexiglass,” Lee shows that there is an abundance of detail to be discovered in places we take for granted every day. There are people, conversations and moments that we have yet to fully embrace.

“It’s such a personal body of work to me,” she said. “These (customers) have big hearts. They’re open people. They’re expressive. And that’s very difficult to find.

“I really care about my customers. … For them to trust me is something that I’m always grateful for.”

Hatnim Lee is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can follow her on Instagram.