There are those unsung heroes who we take for granted by virtue of the fact that they are always around. Corky Lee was one of those regular guys who mingled in every crowd seamlessly. It took his death last week from COVID-19 to make the world realize that the community has lost a giant who can never be replaced. Asian Americans, particularly those along the East Coast, where he lived and worked, are still trembling with grief.
Armed only with the camera he used as his voice and his silent weapon, he was a gentle, quiet, slightly built and unassuming man who documented our lives and times with power, dignity and grace. At 73 years of age, he had interminable energy, often traveling around every borough in New York in a day to cover any event in which an Asian American was involved.
When I saw him a year ago November, he bragged about just coming from a Cambodian festival in the Bronx, then taking the train to an Asian American event outside the city, only to finish off the day with a screening for a Japanese American film festival on the Lower East Side. It’s not hard to understand why practically every Asian on the East Coast knew who he was, and vice versa, he knew all of them.
I first discovered Corky Lee in hundreds of credit lines. If there was a notable Asian American figure from as far back as the ’60s, Corky Lee probably took the photo. I remember contacting him back in the ’90s when I did a documentary on writer/activist Michi Nishiura Weglyn to see if he had any photos of her. He could name practically every single one, but the hard part was finding them in the massive archive he had already accumulated.
When we discussed how much it would cost for me to use one in our meagerly budgeted nonprofit film, he already seemed to know we had no money to spare. He explained to me that this happened to him all the time but begrudgingly consented to our using them at no charge. I realized then that this was a man who cared more about sharing his community than profiting from it.
Corky went on to takes hundreds of thousands of photographs of every notable Asian American event, person or thing. Most conspicuously, one that will live on in the annals of history, he staged himself. Angered by seeing a photo paying tribute to the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad without a single Chinese American face in it, he took matters in his own hands by gathering together descendants of Chinese American railroad workers at the same spot in Promontory, Utah, to shoot a group photo five years later.
It’s a scene that is depicted poetically in the film “Photographic Justice: The Story of Corky Lee,” a not-to-be-missed documentary yet to be released. I had the honor of seeing a rough cut at a 2019 fundraiser hosted by film director Jennifer Takaki, held at the home of New York activist Julie Azuma.
Apparently, the term “photographic justice” came to Corky as he shot that photo. He summed up his lifelong mission: “Rectifying American history one photograph at a time.” He went on to proclaim, “We do matter. America better get used to it.”
It seemed that Corky had come full circle from the obscure photographer known primarily by his byline to the adored “photographer laureate” who strode confidently into a packed room with pride in the community that adored him.
How tragically ironic that the man who used his camera to fight injustice and racist stereotypes died from the disease that has perpetuated anti-Asian hatred. COVID-19, hatefully mislabeled the “Chinese virus,” which has taken the lives of more than 425,000 Americans, has resulted in yet another latest spike in deaths. It’s no wonder there’s seething anger from the heartless politicization of this pandemic. To blame is the ineptitude and racism of a former president and his white supremacist sycophants who insisted on using the term while doing little to prevent its spread.
Like so many others who we’ve lost to COVID, Corky Lee didn’t have to die. Our hope is his death gives us more ammunition for the fight ahead. We can move forward in his shadow by calling attention to the anti-Asian and other racist attitudes he fought so long and hard to dispel. We’ve still got a lot of work ahead, but I have a feeling that Corky is there poking every one of us to carry on with all the passion and strength he left in his wake.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Corky’s memory can be made to the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) Photog Affinity Group, at www.aaja.org. Funds are also being raised until Feb. 11, 2021, to help cover his medical and funeral expenses through the Corky Lee Recovery Fundraiser on Facebook and/or Venmo (CorkyLeeRecoveryFund@gmail.com). He is survived by his partner, Karen Zhou, and his brother, John Lee, who lives in Carlsbad.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.