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  • Jan 28, 2021

Obituary: Corky Lee (1948–2021)

A portrait of CORKY LEE. Image via

On January 27, Chinese American photojournalist and activist Corky Lee passed away in New York due to complications from Covid-19, aged 73.

Born and raised in Queens, New York, Lee was a beloved figure in the Asian American diaspora and a pillar of its community activism since the 1970s with his documentation of the daily struggles for visibility and equality that these people faced. His passion for what he referred to as “photographic justice” began during a grade eight history class, when he first saw the official 1869 photograph of the completed Utah Promontory Summit transcontinental railroad with only White laborers—and none of the more than 12,000 Chinese laborers who worked on the project. Propelled by his desire to correct this misrepresentation, Lee studied American history at Queens College in New York in 1965 while becoming a self-taught photographer.

Notably, his photo Police Brutality Victim (1975) of 27-year-old engineer Peter Yew, who was severely beaten without cause by New York’s Fifth Precinct police, appeared on that year’s cover of the New York Post, mobilizing up to 3,000 Chinatown residents to march to City Hall in protest of unwarranted police brutality against visible minorities. In his photo In 2014, Utah, 145th anniversary of the first Transcontinental Railroad, the act of Photographic Justice at Promontory Summit (2014), he restaged the original railroad photo for its 145th anniversary, replacing the White laborers with 250 descendants of the original Chinese laborers. In December 2018, he contributed to the passing of the Chinese American World War II Veteran Congressional Gold Medal Act, ensuring that approximately 20,000 veterans were finally honored for their services.

Lee’s photography has appeared in numerous publications including, Time, The New York Times, Associated Press, and The Village Voice. He held many exhibitions, such as “A Photographic Journey with Corky Lee” at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute in 2002, “Chinese-American: Exclusion/Inclusion” at New York Historical Society in 2014, and the “Anti-Asian Racism Exhibition” hosted by New York’s Chinatown Organization for Media Awakening in 2020. He received the 1993 Special Recognition Award from the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), the 2002 New York Press Association Award, and the 2009 Susan Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from AAJA. Lee is survived by his brother, John Lee.

Yuna Lee is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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