From The Asian Reporter, V31, #2 (February 1, 2021), page
Corky Lee, known for photographing Asian
America, dies at age 73
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
Corky Lee, a photojournalist who spent five decades
spotlighting often ignored Asian and Pacific Islander American
communities, has died. He was 73 years old.
Lee died January 27 in New York City’s Queens borough of
complications from COVID-19, his family said in a statement.
"His passion was to rediscover, document, and champion
through his images the plight of all Americans but most
especially that of Asian and Pacific Islanders," his family
The self-described "undisputed unofficial Asian-American
Photographer Laureate," Lee used his eye to pursue what he saw
as "photographic justice." Almost always sporting a camera
around his neck, he was present at many seminal moments
impacting Asian America over a 50-year career.
He was born Young Kwok Lee in New York City to Chinese
immigrant parents. He was the first child in his family to go to
college, graduating from City University of New York’s Queens
A self-taught freelance photographer, Lee aimed his camera
lens on a slew of subjects from anti-Vietnam war protests to
police brutality. Over the years, his photos appeared in The
New York Times, TIME magazine, the New York Post,
New York Daily News, The Associated Press, and
Asian-American outlets. Most recently, he was documenting
anti-Asian racism brought on by the pandemic.
Lee was there when Asian Americans took to the streets to
protest the lack of jail time for the killers of Vincent Chin.
The 27-year-old Chin was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982, a
time when Japan was being blamed for the U.S. auto industry’s
decline. The two laid-off white autoworkers who killed Chin —
who was Chinese — assumed he was Japanese. They were convicted
of manslaughter but got just three years of probation.
In 2017, Lee organized a vigil outside the Nevada home of one
of Chin’s attackers.
An event that had an indelible influence on Lee’s desire for
more Asian representation was the building of the
Transcontinental Railroad. In previous interviews, Lee spoke of
being in junior high and coming across a picture from the 1869
completion of the railroad in Utah. The iconic "Champagne Photo"
featured almost no Chinese workers, even though they made up the
majority of the labor.
In 2002, Lee gathered some of those laborers’ descendants in
the same spot for a reenactment. More than a nice gesture, Lee
felt the anniversary photograph was restoring Asians into the
history of the country they helped build. He went on to
re-create the photo on more than one anniversary.
Lee also believed in paying it forward to Asian-American
journalists coming after him. He was a founding member of the
New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA).
He is credited with helping raise more than $100,000 in
scholarship funds through annual photo auctions.
"AAJA is heartbroken over the loss of our beloved Corky Lee,
a trailblazer whose career has been instrumental to our
collective understanding and appreciation of the history,
triumphs, and struggles of Asian America," AAJA president
Michelle Ye Hee Lee said in a statement.
A private funeral service will be held at Wah Wing Sang
Funeral Home in New York.
Lee is survived by his brother John.