Documentary Explores Corky Lee: Photographer of Asian-American Life

A new documentary explores the life and career of photographer Corky Lee who turned his lens to the Asian Americans who are so often left out of history.

Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story looks at the history-making legacy of the Asian American photographer, journalist, and activist who died in 2021 from COVID-19.

Lee, who described himself as “the undisputed, unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” dedicated his lens to these overlooked immigrant communities in the U.S. The new documentary delves into the lasting impact of Lee’s work.

“Corky helped change the American landscape through his lens,” Jennifer Takaki, Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story’s director, says in an interview with The Guardian.

“He had the knowledge of American history and the insight of a community organizer, so he could offer insight into a community that he was personally involved with, but also documented in a way to show that they were larger pieces missing from American history.”

The Moment That Inspired His Life’s Work

Lee was born in 1947 in Queens, New York City, to Chinese immigrant parents. When he was in a social studies class about the transcontinental railroad as a child at school, he noticed the lack of representation in images of the thousands of Chinese laborers who helped build it.

“History, at least photographically, says that the Chinese were not present,” Lee told NPR in 2014.

The photographer later revealed that this moment inspired his life’s work. Lee was determined to rectify such omissions and would go on to teach himself photography.

Lee’s approach to his craft as a photographer was to always show up with his camera during his 45-year-long career. He made a point of being at as many Asian American events as he possibly could, no matter how big or how small — everything from Lunar New Year parades to countless protests and demonstrations that showed the full force of these often ignored and overlooked communities.

“Anything that happens in the lives of Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans, Korean-Americans, Indian-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, Sri Lankan-Americans, Hmong-Americans, Thai-Americans, Cambodian-Americans, Burmese-Americans, Filipino-Americans, Malaysian-Americans, Hawaiians and other Asian-Pacific Americans is Corky Lee’s business,” The New York Times once said of the photographer.

‘If You’re a Photographer, Keep Shooting’

Lee dedicated his life to representing the efforts of the Asian-Americans in the U.S. including its members’ achievements, struggles, and fight for recognition and rights.

From his photos of the protests that broke out in New York’s Chinatown over police brutality, a Korean woman winning a Coney Island hot dog eating contest, to the Asian American first responders in the aftermath of 9/11, Lee’s unforgettable images empowered generations.

His work has been frequently assembled for museum and gallery shows, including one at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas in New York in 2001. Lee contracted COVID-19 amidst the disease’s global pandemic and died in January 2021 — with reports that the photographer became infected with the virus while patrolling Chinatown with neighborhood watch groups that were protecting residents from the rise in anti-Asian violence.

Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story is an intimate portrait of the triumphs and tragedies of the man behind the lens.

“The Asian American movement, I believe, is still alive,” Lee says in the documentary.

“Whenever there’s a crisis, more people step up to the plate. There will be setbacks, there will be times when you feel depressed about what’s going on, but you have to believe that things are going to get better.

“If you’re a photographer, keep shooting.”

Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story can be streamed on PBS in the U.S.