Corky Lee, the legendary photographer who dedicated his life to capturing the lives of the Asian American community, has died. He was 73.
The photojournalist died Wednesday in New York City due to complications from COVID-19, according to Reuters.
Lee first began experiencing symptoms of the virus on Jan. 3 and was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 7, the outlet reported. He was then moved to the ICU on Jan. 11, according to CNN.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Corky (Young Kwok) Lee,” his family shared in a statement to Facebook Wednesday. “Corky, as he was known to the Asian American community, was everywhere. He always had a camera around his neck, documenting a community event, capturing a social injustice for the record and even correcting the social injustice of an historical event that took place well over a century ago. He did what he loved and we loved him for it.”
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“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,” the family added.
The son of two Chinese immigrants was known as the “unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate” and captured photos of the social and political lives of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.
“Mr. Lee was set on his photojournalistic course in junior high school by a famous photograph taken at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869,” reads a profile from New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute. “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 this picture. No Chinese workers. Since Mr. Lee first laid eyes on that photograph, he has devoted himself to making Asian Pacific Americans visible.”
In 2014, to commemorate the 145th anniversary of the railroad’s completion, Lee gathered about 250 Chinese Americans to recreate the photo for what he called a “Photographic Act of Justice,” according to Reuters.
Corky Lee, the unofficial photo laureate of the Asian-American community, has died of COVID. The photo that epitomizes his work was this recreation of the famed Golden Spike Transcontinental Railroad with descendants of railroad workers. https://t.co/oWa3oWPLsS
— Jennifer 8. Lee (@jenny8lee) January 27, 2021
This became one of Lee’s most famous works, and he continued to photograph Asian Americans to strengthen their representation in history.
Lee was also known for his photographs of immigration legislation and civil rights protests.
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In 1975, he documented the protests against police brutality after a Chinese American was beaten by New York police officers, according to CNN.
The photographer also captured everyday photos in New York City’s Chinatown, snapping pictures of everything from shopkeepers to restaurant chefs to children.
Linda Ng, the national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, called Lee an “incredible pioneer” in representing the lives of Asian Americans.
“Photos have been crucial in preserving history. Immigrants, including AAPIs (Asian American Pacific Islanders), have greatly contributed to the rich fabric of American society,” she said. “In our fight for AAPI representation at all tables, we must make sure that also includes AAPI representation in history.”
A memorial service for Lee will be held in New York in the coming days. In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made in Lee’s honor to the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) Photog Affinity Group.
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