Sikh Art & Film Foundation

CORKY LEE - Asian American Photographer Laureate

Corky Lee, a self-taught photographer, has been documenting the vibrant and fast-emerging Asian and Pacific American community for over 36 years. Known as the "undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate," the ubiquitous Corky has covered the day to day lives of Asian Pacific Americans as well as historical moments in American history.

For 36 years, Lee has used his camera to ensure that the faces of Asian Pacific Americans and their experiences be included in American history. His mission has been to document the incredibly diverse Asian American communities ignored by mainstream media. In an interview in AsianWeek Lee commented: "I'd like to think that every time I take my camera out of my bag, it's like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination, trying to get rid of stereotypes."

Lee was set on his photojournalistic course in junior high school by a famous photograph taken at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. The picture commemorated the completion of the transcontinental railroad and showed workers posing with two trains, one from the Central Pacific and one from the Union Pacific. But something was wrong with the picture. No Chinese workers. Since Lee first laid eyes on that photograph, he has devoted himself to making Asian Pacific Americans visible.

At once intensely personal and socially conscious, Lee's self-styled photojournalism crosses the divides of different Asian nationalities, and presents a rich picture of Asian Pacific Islander Americans adjusting and finding their place in America. As a photojournalist imbued with an unyielding passion for community activism, Lee has challenged stereotypes by offering diverse images from the often invisible and excluded Asian Pacific American communities.

9/11 gave Mr. Lee a new mission. On September 15, 2001 a group of Pacific Asians and South Asians got together to discuss their fears. Sikhs were being attacked in the United States because of their turbans and dark complexions. How could they tell the world they were not Taliban? That evening, at a candlelight vigil in Central Park, Mr. Lee took pictures of Sikhs wrapped in the American flag holding signs against racial profiling and terrorism. The picture won an award from the New York Press Association. One judge commented: "Unusual juxtaposition of patriotism and ethnicity. The subject's devious stare into the lens is compelling."

His work, which has been described as "only a small attempt to rectify omissions in our history text books," has appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Associated Press, The Villager and Downtown Express, as well as exhibitions throughout the United States, including Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu and Denver. On college campuses, his photographs have been exhibited at Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Lee contends that he owes much of his success to the Asian American press, notably A. magazine, Filipinas magazine and Koream Journal in addition to the following newspapers: AsianWeek, Asian New Yorker, NY Nichibei, Rafu Shimpo, International Examiner and Hawaii Herald.

Born and raised Queens, N.Y., Lee is a second-generation Chinese American and the eldest child of a "paper son" laundryman and a seamstress. Lee is a graduate of Queens College and lives in Queens.

Lee was the 2002-2003 Artist-In-Residence at New York University's Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute.

A comprehensive collection of Corky Lee's work was exhibited at The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, California. Asian Roots / American Reality: Photgraphs by Corky Lee ran from November 16, 2008 to May 31, 2009.

On August 15, 2009 at the Annual Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) Convention in Boston, Corky Lee, received the Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The award is named in honor of the late Dr. Ahn, a Korean American who was raised in Arkansas and Texas who devoted her life to promoting civil rights and social justice for all Americans, especially women and Asian Americans.

Corky Lee