Corky Lee, an award-winning photographer who captured the everyday lives and political activism of the Asian American community, has died at the age of 73 after battling Covid-19.
“(Corky) had a very unique lens. 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,” the statement added. “He has left us with what is likely to be the single largest repository of the photographic history of Asian Americans of the past half century.”
Lee first began experiencing Covid-19 symptoms on January 3, and was he hospitalized on January 7, according to a family statement on a Facebook fundraiser page. He was moved to the ICU on January 11.
He is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, his elder sister’s husband, and both siblings’ children, according to the family’s statement.
Lee was born to two Chinese immigrants in Queens, New York. Dubbed the “Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” he documented Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in vivid, intimate detail over his 50-year career.
His dedication to documenting racial injustice, its consequences and the community’s resistance continued until the end, with recent work focusing on attacks toward Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the family’s statement.
A film about his life and work, “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story,” was in production at the time of his death.
“The pursuit of photographic justice, you have to keep going on because there’s so much that needs to be done,” he adds.
Lee was “one of the main documentarians of the Asian American movement,” curator Ryan Lee Wong is quoted as saying in the trailer. “This is important because social movements are so hard to capture — and Corky was really there at just about every rally and movement and event.”
Lee’s death was met with an outpouring of grief and gratitude from the Asian American community on Wednesday.
“Our film will pay tribute to his legacy and his never ending pursuit of photographic justice. RIP Corky, you are loved and will be forever missed,” she wrote.
“I don’t know who we’d be without Corky Lee’s photos,” he wrote. “When I was gathering art and archives of Asian American organizing, his photos were evidence of the struggle, a vital report from the movement. Community is made of people who show up, and he showed up to everything: rallies, exhibitions, dances, policy meetings, and every banquet in Chinatown.”
A number of institutions, including the Chinese American Museum of Chicago, the Chinese American Museum Washington DC, and the Asian Community Development Council released statements commemorating Lee’s legacy.
“In our fight for AAPI representation at all tables, we must make sure that also includes AAPI representation in history. Corky Lee was an incredible pioneer of these efforts.”
Top image caption: Corky Lee directs a photography shoot in May 2014.