For forty years, Corky Lee has been taking photos to bring light to commonly un-told Asian American experiences and struggles. His work has earned him the title of “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photo Laureate.” Through the lens of his camera, this artist and activist chronicles and highlights real stories of struggle, heroism, oppression, and triumph of Asian Americans which are not often seen in mainstream media.
Born in Queens, New York in 1948, Corky Lee says he recognizes the role of history in his heritage. His father entered the US as a paper son in 1929 and later served with the famous WWII group, the Flying Tigers, defending against Japanese forces. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Lee’s father from immigration until after WWII. His mother was a war bride.
Lee decided to study American history at Queens College. At the age of 33, he became a community organizer for Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in NY Chinatown, and it was around this time that he began taking photographs with a borrowed camera, documenting experiences in his community.
When asked, Lee credits his greatest achievement as taking pictures that empower “our mental portraiture of Asian Americans in events that illustrate civil rights and activism among Asian-Pacific Americans.” He has photographed everything from political protests to community celebrations in ethnic enclaves, from garment factories to cultural festivals, from Sikh Americans facing discrimination after 9/11 to student activists at UCLA during the response to the racist, misogynistic flyer sent to the Asian American Studies Center this year. In addition to being a founding member of the Asian American Journalism Association (AAJA), Lee has had his work featured in Time Magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the front page of the New York Post, to name a few, and has received numerous accolades for his art and contributions to the community.
On May 10, 2014, Lee recreated the historic photograph taken 145 years ago in Promontory, Utah to commemorate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad–this time, the photograph featured descendants of the Chinese laborers who made vast stretches of the railroad possible but who were excluded from original photo.
Today, he continues to fight for justice and inclusion for all API’s. Lee’s photography strikes down harmful stereotypes and makes a diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander stories come alive. Corky Lee, we applaud and thank you!—
Written by APC Intern Angela Yip