Corky Lee - The Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate
Corky Lee was a Chinese-American activist, community organizer, photographer, and journalist who dedicated his life to documenting and celebrating the experiences and contributions of Asian Americans. He passed away on January 27, 2021, at the age of 73, after battling Covid-19.
Early life and education
Lee was born on September 5, 1947, in Queens, New York City, to two Chinese immigrants who owned a laundrette and worked as a seamstress. He attended Jamaica High School and Queens College, where he studied American history. He taught himself photography, borrowing cameras because he could not afford his own.
Photographic work and activism
Lee was inspired by an 1869 photograph that commemorated the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. The photo depicted only white laborers, despite the fact that thousands of Chinese workers had participated in the massive construction project. Lee felt that this photo erased the presence and role of Chinese Americans in history.
He decided to use his camera as a sword to combat racial injustice and to make visible the diversity and nuances of Asian American culture that were often ignored or overlooked by mainstream media. He called himself an "ABC from NYC... wielding a camera to slay injustices against APAs." APA stands for Asian Pacific Americans.
Lee's work covered key events in Asian American political history, such as the 1975 protest against police brutality in Chinatown, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin in Michigan, and the aftermath of 9/11 on Muslim Americans. He also captured the daily lives of Asian Americans across different ethnicities, professions, generations, and regions. He strove to make Asian American history a part of American history.
In one of his most famous works, he gathered a group of Chinese Americans and descendants of Chinese railroad workers to recreate the 1869 photograph in the same original location. He also organized annual pilgrimages to Promontory Summit to honor the Chinese workers who built the railroad.
Lee was widely recognized and respected for his work. He received numerous awards and honors, including a proclamation from New York City Mayor Ed Koch declaring May 5, 1988, as "Corky Lee Day." His photographs have been exhibited in various museums and galleries, and are archived at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Chinese in America.
Personal life and legacy
Lee was married to Margaret Dea, who died in 2001. They did not have any children. He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, his elder sister's husband, and both siblings' children.
Lee's legacy lives on through his photographs, which document and celebrate the rich and diverse history of Asian Americans. He was a visionary who used his lens to capture the stories and struggles of a community that was often marginalized or silenced. He was a mentor and a friend to many who shared his passion for social justice and cultural representation. He was Corky Lee: the unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.