The late photographer, journalist, and activist Young Kwok “Corky” Lee was featured in a Google Doodle on Friday to celebrate Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
The homepage illustration featured the lifelong New Yorker, who died in 2021, holding his Nikon camera, surrounded by various scenes of Asian Americans that he aimed his lens, often with a feeling of special care to a community that has historically been marginalized.
For some six decades, Lee’s photography became a record of the diversity and nuances of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities as they evolved and grew in New York City and other cities in the United States. Born in Queens, Lee was self-taught as a photographer, but his documentation of protests, rallies, demonstrations, celebrations like Lunar New Year festivals, and other daily events were published in countless publications like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Village Voice, the New York Post, and the Associated Press.
One of Lee’s most notable photographs was when he capture young Chinese American Peter Yew being dragged away by police. In 1975, Yew had witnessed a 15-year-old being beaten by police officers for an alleged traffic violation; when he tried to intervene, he was subsequently severely beaten. Yew was also charged with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. A week after the beating, thousands of Chinatown residents, spurred by Lee’s photograph, protested the growing police violence in their neighborhoods.
Lee’s community involvement also included his work through the Basement Workshop organization, the first Asian American political and arts organization in New York City that was active from 1970 to 1986.
In honor of Lee’s work as a photographer and activist, New York City Mayor David Dinkins declared May 7, 1993 as “Corky Lee Day.” Lee’s work has been the subject of two documentaries: Not on the Menu: Corky Lee’s Life and Work (2013) and Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story (2022).
Lee’s belief in the importance of capturing Asian Americans also included a re-creation of a famous photograph marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869. Lee noticed how Chinese laborers, who had built the railroad, had not been included in the image. In 2002, Lee gathered and organized Asian Americans and relatives of Chinese railroad workers from the 1860s, posing them in the same way as the 1869 photograph. He made another photograph in 2014, on the 145th anniversary of the original, and called it “photographic justice.”
Lee was also an active member of the New York chapter of the Asian American Journalists’ Association (AAJA), and actively mentored younger photographers and journalists. He also frequently donated framed prints of his work to AAJA’s annual fundraising auction during its national convention. Last year, AAJA’s New York chapter also set up a $5,000 photojournalism fellowship named in Lee’s honor.