Corky Lee was born in 1948 in Queens, New York to Chinese immigrant parents who ran a laundry shop. From a young age, Corky was interested in photography. He studied photography at Queens College, graduating with a BA in Photography in 1969. After college, Corky worked various jobs, including as a social worker and teacher, while pursuing photography on the side.
In the 1970s, Corky began taking photos to document and bring awareness to the struggles, biases and discrimination that Asian Americans faced. Feeling that Asian Americans were often left out of mainstream American history, Corky made it his mission to photograph overlooked or forgotten events in Asian American history.
Capturing Overlooked Moments
Some of Corky’s most famous early photographs captured important but overlooked moments in Asian American history, like Chinese Americans building the Transcontinental Railroad and Japanese Americans being held in internment camps during World War II. Corky would extensively research these historical events and then restage photographs to capture the emotional impact of the moments.
|Chinese Railroad Workers
|Japanese American Internment
Many institutions, including the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, have showcased Corky’s groundbreaking photographs documenting the long history of Asians in America. His photography has been credited with ensuring that Asian American history takes its rightful place in mainstream American history.
9/11 and Beyond
After the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Corky documented hate crimes against Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South Asian Americans in New York and beyond. He wanted to bring awareness to these often unreported incidents. Corky has said “I photograph injustices hoping that in some small way, my images can help trigger positive social change.”
In more recent years, Corky has continued documenting and raising awareness about incidents of injustice, racism and xenophobia experienced by Asian Americans. This has included photographing demonstrations related to hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in his 70s, Corky remains a prominent and passionate voice for the Asian American community through his photography.
Activism and Accomplishments
In addition to his renowned photography career spanning over 40 years, Corky Lee has been a leading Asian American civil rights activist and advocate. Some of his key accomplishments and contributions include:
- Co-founded the New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association
- Served 6 terms as President of the Asian American Journalists Association, working to increase Asian American representation in media
- Created workshops on diversity for various media organizations including The New York Times and the Associated Press
- Received honorary doctorates from Queens College and the College of Staten Island for his photography and civil rights activism
- Had his photos displayed at over 500 venues, including the Smithsonian, the White House, and the Library of Congress
- Subject of an award-winning documentary film called Corky Lee’s Lens on the Asian American Experience by Erin Lew-Smith
Corky remains actively involved with several Asian American advocacy organizations to this day, continuing his lifelong fight for civil rights and representation. He serves on the boards of:
- The Chinatown History Museum
- The Museum of Chinese in America
- The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project
Now in his 70s, Corky Lee shows no signs of slowing down his photography or his activism. He continues using his camera to pursue justice and bring awareness to the Asian American experience.
What early experiences shaped Corky Lee’s interest in photography?
Corky Lee became interested in photography from a young age when he was growing up in Queens, New York in the 1950s and 1960s. As the son of Chinese immigrants who ran a laundry shop, Corky saw firsthand some of the struggles and discrimination faced by Asian Americans. He was driven to document the overlooked stories and experiences in Asian American history. Corky went on to study photography formally at Queens College, receiving encouragement from professors that likely further bolstered his passions. Several early experiences shaped his budding interests:
- Saw his parents face racism and discrimination as struggling Chinese American immigrants
- Observed prejudice that Asian Americans encountered in 1950s/60s New York
- Wanted to document everyday lives of working-class Chinese immigrants
- Studied photography at Queens College, graduating with a BA in 1969
- Mentored by professors who likely encouraged his talent and ambitions
- Began photographing Asian American communities near campus
From these early firsthand perspectives of inequality as well as encouragement from his photography studies, Corky’s lifelong mission of bringing awareness to Asian American history through photography emerged.
How did Corky Lee help bring Asian American stories into the mainstream historical narrative?
Throughout his over 40-year career, Corky Lee’s photography has been instrumental in documenting overlooked stories in Asian American history and bringing them into the mainstream consciousness. Some key ways he helped center Asian American stories as part of mainstream American history include:
Photographing Forgotten Events
Corky researched key events like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and Japanese American internment during WWII. He would extensively restage photographs to capture these seminal moments from Asian American perspectives, when they had been largely ignored.
Getting Institutions to Recognize Asian American History
By lobbying and working with groups like the Smithsonian and Library of Congress, Corky helped get his photographs and the stories they told included within the halls of mainstream American history for the first time.
Using Photography to Spark Social Change
Through his over 10,000 photographs documenting anti-Asian bias and discrimination over four decades, Corky brought awareness and rallied political action to support Asian American communities.
Inspiring Future Generations
Corky inspired new generations of Asian American activists and historians to continue uncovering and telling overlooked stories of their communities through books, media and the arts.
Thanks to Corky Lee’s tireless activism, Asian American stories now hold a permanent place in how American history gets told and remembered. Though there is still progress to be made, his photography has sparked increased mainstream recognition of Asian American experiences.
What techniques did Corky Lee use to document Asian American history through photography?
Throughout his long photography career, Corky Lee used a range of techniques to vividly document Asian American history. Some of his common methods included:
Researching Significant Historical Events
Corky extensively researched events he aimed to photograph, reading history books and academic studies to fully understand contexts. This ensured accuracy.
Restaging and Reenacting
Since Corky was capturing past events not originally photographed, he would meticulously stage scenes and recruit participants to reenact them based on his research.
Capturing Candid Community Moments
Corky also walked streets like New York’s Chinatown to photograph everyday community scenes, parades and protests to document contemporary Asian American life.
Lobbying Institutions to Display Work
Corky worked hard to get his photographs centered in mainstream museums and historical institutions to educate wider audiences on Asian American history.
Using Light and Contrast
As a professionally-trained photographer, Corky had masterful technical skills. His photographs artfully used light, shadows, textures and contrasts to add depth, dimension and power to his images.
By combining historical research with professional creative talent and sheer determination, Corky Lee created unforgettable photographs conveying overlooked stories of the Asian American experience to the public eye.
What role did Corky Lee’s activism play in support of Asian American civil rights?
In addition to his groundbreaking photography career, Corky Lee played an influential role as a civil rights activist dedicated to advancing causes of importance to the Asian American community. Some dimensions of his lifelong activism’s impact include:
Increasing Asian American Representation
As a founding member of the New York Chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, Corky improved employment and representation of Asian Americans throughout major media outlets.
Promoting Balanced Coverage
By consulting with groups including The New York Times and AP, Corky pushed for more balanced, nuanced coverage of Asian American stories versus harmful stereotypes.
Enhancing Political Engagement
Corky aligned with Asian American civic groups to fight for equitable policies, while also photographing rallies and protests to document activism success.
Furthering Youth Development
Corky completed workshops and lectures at numerous universities to support the next generation of Asian American civil rights leaders and historians in telling their communities’ stories.
At age 72, Corky still serves on multiple nonprofit boards furthering access, social justice, education and arts celebrating Asian American life. His photography and lifelong advocacy have been integral to advancing civil rights.
What future projects or causes might Corky Lee support with his photography going forward?
Now in his 70s, Corky Lee has spent over 40 years using his powerful photography to bring awareness to overlooked aspects of Asian American history and shape the narrative and representation of his community within the United States.
In a conclusion, I would sum up Corky Lee’s many accomplishments as a photojournalist and activist who played a pivotal role in documenting Asian American life, reshaping historical narratives, fighting societal biases, and pushing for positive representation and social change over the last 40+ years. His photos and legacy ensure Asian American stories are rightfully centered as part of the United States’ rich history and identity.
Over his 40+ year career, Corky Lee has left an indelible impact as a photographer and civil rights activist committed to advancing the visibility of Asian American life and history. Through meticulous research and masterful photography techniques, Corky has created powerful images that have reshaped dominant historical narratives by presenting seminal events from Asian American perspectives that were long overlooked.
His over 10,000 photographs documenting anti-Asian racism and pivotal cultural moments exposed wider audiences to Asian American stories for the first time. By getting his work prominently displayed at major institutions, Corky ensured that Asian American contributions and experiences are now indelibly part of the fabric of mainstream American history.
Beyond his photography, Corky has been a tireless advocate dedicated to advancing social justice for Asian American groups through political activism, media representation, youth development and more.
At over 70 years old, Corky shows no signs of slowing down his impactful photography and advocacy that have been instrumental in legitimizing and bringing awareness to the integral role of Asian Americans in the United States. With future generations that he continues to inspire, Corky Lee’s legacy promises to endure for decades to come.
What types of photos is Corky best known for?
Corky Lee is likely best known for his historic photographs capturing overlooked events in Asian American history like the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and World War II Japanese internment camps. By extensively recreating seminal moments not originally documented, Corky brought them into public consciousness for the first time.
Where are Corky Lee’s photographs displayed?
Corky’s groundbreaking photography has been featured at over 500 venues across the United States and beyond. Some of the most prominent institutions to display his work include the Smithsonian Museum of American History, Library of Congress, National Portrait Gallery, and American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.
How many awards has Corky Lee received?
With over 40 years documenting Asian American life, Corky’s photography has been widely celebrated. Among his honors are 5 New York Emmy nominations, an ARRAY grant from film studio Ava DuVernay, honorary doctorates from multiple universities, and lifetime achievement awards from Asian American arts groups.
What does the future hold for Corky’s photography and activism?
Even at his advanced age, Corky remains actively engaged through events, speaking engagements and serving on non-profit boards furthering Asian American causes. He continues working on new photo projects bringing awareness to discrimination and shaping positive representations of Asian American identity. Corky’s influence through his photography, counsel and legacy will endure for generations to come.