Corky Lee’s 50 years of ‘photographic justice’ chronicled in new book

Corky Lee’s 50 years of ‘photographic justice’ chronicled in new bookCorky Lee’s 50 years of ‘photographic justice’ chronicled in new book
via Penguin Random House
Corky Lee, while studying American history at Queens College in New York in the ’60s, was struck by a photograph taken in 1869 depicting the celebration of the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah. 
Despite learning that over 12,000 Chinese workers were involved in the project, he couldn’t find a single Chinese face in the photo. The omission immediately sparked his mission to help increase Asian American representation in mainstream media. 
Years later, after teaching himself photography, Lee went on to recreate the photograph in 2014 with descendants of the original Chinese railroad workers. He called the image a “photographic justice.”
via Penguin Random House
Another notable work was his photograph of Peter Yew, a bloodied young Chinese American who was beaten and dragged away by police in 1975. The image, which he sold to the New York Post, inspired thousands of Chinatown residents to protest the rampant police brutality in their neighborhoods. Today, Lee’s work continues to inspire the Asian American community, who find themselves still fighting for representation and against discrimination
Lee, who continued documenting life’s struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, had set out to create a self-published book in 2011. But on Jan. 27, 2021, he passed away at the age of 73 due to complications from coronavirus. He was never able to complete his book. 
After his passing, publishing company Penguin Random House and John J. Lee, Corky’s brother and the executor of his estate, made it their mission to honor his legacy by finishing his book, tapping visual artist and photographer Chee Wang Ng and Columbia University history professor and author Mae Ngai as editors. 
“I was honored that John reached out to me to work on it,” Ngai, who had known Corky since the 1970s when they were both activists in New York‘s Chinatown, told NextShark. 
Ngai recalled her last interaction with Lee in 2019, which involved planning an exhibit of his photos at Columbia University, where she was the co-director of the ethnic studies program. Despite discussing themes and measurements for the exhibit, it never happened due to the pandemic.
Writer and historian Mae Ngai (USA), New York, New York, January 21, 2021. Photograph © Beowulf Sheehan
Since Lee’s passing, Ngai has been amazed by how many young people, particularly students, continue to turn to him for inspiration, leading her to take on the Penguin Random House book project. “Corky Lee’s Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice” not only represents over 200 of the award-winning photojournalist’s work but also provides a rich visual account of the AAPI social justice movement. 
Given Lee’s extensive collection of photographs spanning five decades, the editors started with the 100 photos that Lee had initially selected for his own book. Editors then added photos that he later chose for exhibitions or other creative projects. 
“These two groups of photographs constitute what Corky himself considered his best work,” Ngai said. “We added others to round out the diversity of themes, as well as some gems that we found in his archive that had never been published or exhibited.”
They also reached out to notable figures, who were eager to share their experiences with Lee. According to Ngai, they strived to include “essays that had both personal reflection and a broader comment on the times.” A foreword was written by author Hua Hsu, and some of the essays included were written by artist Ai Weiwei, filmmaker Renée Tajima-Peña, writer Helen Zia, photographer Alan Chin, historian Gordon Chang and playwright David Henry Hwang. 
Although the book is led by other writers, artists and activists, editors noted it stays true to Lee’s perspective and values.
“Corky was famous as a storyteller, and wherever I had access to his own stories, in his own words — from interviews, films, etcetera — I used these as a guide,” Ngai shared. “We tried to present a book that was Corky’s book — guided by his own values and ethics. He’s the real author. At the same time, as editors, we offered historical and social context. So there’s a kind of balance.”
via Penguin Random House
As a historian specializing in Asian American studies, Ngai perceives Lee’s impact on documenting AAPI history through photography as profound. She notes that when viewed chronologically, Lee’s photos trace a 50-year historical arc of Asian American history. They depict the transition from the exclusion era to the influx of “new immigrants” following the 1965 immigration reforms. Then through the 1980s and 1990s, Lee’s photographs reflect the growth and diversification of Asian American communities, alongside increased struggles for equality and representation. By the 21st century, Asian American communities were more engaged in mainstream American politics and culture but still faced challenges for fairness, equality and justice.
Ngai points out that Lee’s images capture pivotal moments of social justice and activism within the community. For example, the book’s chapter from 2001 to 2020, titled “Resilience,” begins with 9/11 and ends with the pandemic, both national crises marked by racism against Asian Americans. 
via Penguin Random House
In the current social and political climate, with debates around Chinese illegal immigration intensifying, Ngai believes that Lee’s photography plays a significant role in providing a counter-narrative to “bombastic and hateful anti-immigration rhetoric” by humanizing immigrants and portraying their real experiences. The images challenge stereotypes and expose the ignorance of those who fail to recognize immigrants as real people with genuine concerns. 
“Corky once said, Chinatown is not a tourist drive-by, it’s a real place where real people have real issues,” Ngai said. “His photographs tell that story.”
Through his photography, Lee provides a visual narrative of Asian American activism and resilience, contributing to a deeper understanding of the community’s history and ongoing struggles. Ngai highlights the results of Corky’s work, such as the establishment of a health clinic from the first Chinatown street health fair in the early 1970s and the voter registration efforts by garment workers union in the 1980s and 1990s. Ngai hopes that the new Corky Lee book will continue to educate the broad public about AAPI history and the communities’ struggles in order to foster greater solidarity for the ongoing fight for equality and justice. 
“Many of the struggles that Corky documented had enduring effects,” Ngai said. “Change is not easy to come by, but it’s possible, with solidarity and commitment.”
“Corky Lee’s Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice,” which goes on sale April 9, is currently available to pre-order on Penguin Random House’s website.
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