Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story

BY Lionelle Hamanaka

Photographer Corky Lee at the Chinese American Museum DC in October 2019.

The Quad Cinema at 34 West 13th Street was buzzing Friday night, July 28, debuting Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story by filmmaker Jennifer Takaki at the Asian American International Film Festival.

A self-taught photographer published in the New York Times, the Daily News and over 40 books, Lee brought to light the lives of 1.6 million Asian Americans in New York City, and 24 million nationwide. Over a 50-year career (he died of Covid in January, 2021) Lee became respected among news people, keeping his day job at Expedi Printing until it closed in 2007.

An American original, Corky Lee documented rarely told stories of millions of Asian Americans, becoming better known than most of his subjects. The film shows diverse happenings: New Year’s parades, a Corky Lee Day declared by Mayor Dinkins—even a bunch of elderly women who protested the perfume “Opium” because there had been an Opium War in China.

Lee said he “got out of college and didn’t know what to do,” so he became a tenant organizer. Realizing pictures were worth 1,000 words, he borrowed a camera and used photos as evidence in Tenant’s Court. As the Vietnam War came to a close he counseled draft evaders. His photos of Asian American veterans of 20th century conflicts are well known. To document workers’ strikes, he bought a camera and photographed a blood-stained Chinese man, a victim of police brutality, published by the New York Post. From the 1970s he covered high profile cases, such as a case in Detroit where two unemployed auto workers killed Vincent Chin, thinking he was a Japanese worker stealing their jobs. They received no jail time.

Lee’s work was inspired by an 1869 photograph he had seen in a social studies textbook that celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. While the massive construction project had employed thousands of Chinese workers, the photo depicted only white laborers. So over a hundred years later, he organized hundreds of Asian Americans to be photographed in Utah as evidence they were part of U.S. history.

“Photographic Justice” interviews many leaders in the Asian American community, from the AA Legal Defense and Education Fund to movie star Tzi Ma, from comic illustrator legend Larry Hama to Lee’s own family.

The Asian American International Film Festival will be at the Quad Cinema through August 6.