I recently chatted over the phone with architectural photographer Magda Biernat, whose work photographing Betel Nut Girls of Taiwan (and the small, contained structures they work in) will be on view at Clic Gallery in New York through March 6th. Betel Nut Beauties is both a cultural and architectural investigation of the roadside stands common across Taiwan that sell paan, a chewing treat made of arcea nut and betel leaves common across South East Asia. Though chewing paan is common across the region, Taiwan has evolved a unique culture around selling it. Betel Nut girls are scantily-clad Taiwanese women who work in small, glassed-in boxes selling the food to passing motorists. Check out the slideshow that follows for Biernat's images and commentary.
I asked Biernat how these cubicle stores come to be. She replied, "They use shipping containers or whatever small boxes or cubicles they find I assume to make these structures."
"There are two types of stores: mom and pop shops that are family run and like normal shops, and then the Betel Nut girls shops with the neon signs and glass window that really put the girl on display."
"The project came about as part of my year of adventure traveling around the world photographing architecture. Being in any other country I want to find what is unique to that place and is also visually striking."
The women who work as Betel Nut girls often come from rural areas, and some argue that this background helps them better communicate with patrons who are also from the countryside.
"My interest started with the buildings," said Biernat. "I'm drawn to self-contained structures so it started out as an interest in the structures. But I didn't want to be the photographer with the zoom lens shooting across the street. So I wanted to come in and talk to the girls and then to photograph them. They really wanted to be photographed."
The at time ad hoc architecture of the buildings and the highly eroticized dress of the women working there are often at aesthetic odds.
"It was interesting looking at the Betel Nut stores from the perspective of my relatives in Taiwan and people of higher economic class who perhaps see the girls as in some ways exploited. But talking to the girls minds began to change."
"The girls talked about working for three or four years and then starting their own shops—moving from worker to owner. Others said that they were saving money for school. But none of them really felt exploited, and I didn't feel that they were unhappy."
"I had an opportunity to work with my husband's brother's wife who is Taiwanese as a translator. So I could go talk to the girls. I wanted to get more information."
"Coming from an architectural background my architectural eye usually draws me into the photograph. But as I took photos of the women my perspective changed a bit and I'm trying not so much to objectify them in the way that I might usually be removed when photographing a structure."
"Each store is locked and the girl comes out to the curb to sell the betel nut. Then she goes back inside. There's a surveillance camera as well, so they're protected in a way."
Here you see a worker leaving the shop, likely heading out to a parked car to sell paan.
"In the end the project became about the stores and the girls," said Biernat.