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Capturing Asian American Life: Corky Lee’s Pursuit of Photographic Justice

Corky Lee dedicated decades to photographing the Asian American experience, both in New York and across the United States. His lens captured not just the moments of the Asian American movement’s emergence but also the everyday occurrences within immigrant communities that often escaped mainstream attention.

Lee viewed his photography as a form of activism, aiming to correct the historical omissions by immortalizing Asian Americans within the fabric of American society. His mission was to include the untold stories in American history books through his visual narratives, a practice he termed “photographic justice.”

The documentary “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story,” premiering in New York, chronicles Lee’s life and work following his passing in 2021 due to Covid-19. Through his own reflections and insights from prominent figures in the Asian American community, the film explores the enduring impact of Lee’s photography and underscores the significance of community documentation.

Jennifer Takaki, the film’s director, highlights how Lee, with his profound understanding of American history and community dynamics, reshaped the American narrative through his images. His ability to blend personal engagement with meticulous documentation revealed the missing pieces in American history, as Takaki underscores.

Initially planning a brief vignette on Lee, Takaki’s project expanded over 19 years as she delved deeper into Lee’s vast collection of photographs and his unparalleled knowledge of local history. Described as an “institutional memory” by author Joann Lee, Corky Lee’s commitment to attending and capturing Asian American events of all scales solidified his legacy as a pivotal figure in community storytelling.

Lee’s unwavering presence at numerous significant events in Asian American history, from documenting police brutality protests to capturing the aftermath of 911, exemplified his dedication to bearing witness. His reenactment of a historic photo involving Chinese railroad workers showcased his proactive approach to reshaping historical narratives and reclaiming Asian American contributions to American history.

Despite his unexpected passing, Lee’s impact endures, with his images serving as a testament to the resilience and spirit of the Asian American community. His call to action at the restaged photo event reflects his unwavering belief in the ongoing Asian American movement and the importance of perseverance in the face of challenges.

“Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story” will premiere in New York on 19 April, followed by screenings in Los Angeles on 26 April and PBS on 13 May, with a UK release date to be announced. Lee’s legacy stands as a reminder to all photographers to continue capturing the essence of communities and histories around them.