“Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story” Turns the Lens on the Asian American Photographer Laureate

Corky Lee and Jennifer Takaki
Corky Lee and Jennifer Takaki, Image Credit: Phil Nee
“Corky was really about people, history and culture. How many people do you know that photograph all things Asian American for no other reason than he feels like it needs to be documented?” -- Jennifer Takaki (Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story)

When filmmaker Jennifer Takaki met the photographer Corky Lee almost two decades ago, she was taken with his passion for chronicling the Asian American Pacific Islander experience on camera (both film and digitally). She decided immediately he’d make a great subject for a film. But. She thought it would be a five-minute film about him in a series of short vignettes of people she found compelling.

Instead, the film took 19 years to complete, and turned out to be the feature-length documentary Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story about the self-labeled “‘undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,’ who unexpectedly died of Covid-19 on January 27, 2021. 

Takaki’s film is now making the circuit of film festivals, including CAAMFest, when it will screen on May 14 at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco Chinatown.

Corky died doing what he loved: taking photographs of the Asian community in New York City, where he was felled by the pandemic. “Corky was so special, and so beloved to so many,” Takaki said about how the project grew over the years.

“I didn’t know who Corky was originally because we had randomly met. And I was trying to do five-minute pieces on people that really kind of struck me as people who had singular-vision who wanted to dedicate their life to whatever their cause was. That’s Corky. When I was interviewing, him, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so interesting,’” Takaki recalled.

“Corky was really about people, history and culture. How many people do you know that photograph all things Asian American for no other reason than he feels like it needs to be documented?”

Takaki literally started following the photographer around in 2003 when he went out to shoot the local Chinese community, or an AAPI event, or a protest that involved Asians. And Takaki let Corky talk on camera about what motivated him. “I really just kind of wanted to have him speak for himself. And I wanted to follow him where he went.

Eventually, Takaki realized she had so much footage of Corky that squeezing his essence into a five-minute film wouldn’t do him—or the community—justice. “I needed to do a (full-length) film,” she admitted.

Her final interview with Corky Lee was in 2020. It’s hard to say what Corky would think of the final version, though he had seen earlier edits. He had assiduously avoided the spotlight (outside of his self-professed title, which he playfully put on business cards, and his acceptance of any awards that came his way), but after his death  the New York and national media wrote glowing obituaries of the man. A short film about Corky has also just been released, filmmaker Curtis Chin’s Dear Corky.

Takaki’s documentary is about Corky, of course, but it’s also very much about the history of the AAPI experience that spawned Corky’s passion—she put Corky in a larger community context, as well as placing him as a New Yorker through and through.

“That was a conscious decision, Takaki said. “Very early on I would sit down with Corky and just talk to him. And you would learn about the Asian American movement. And once Corky starts to say one thing, then he starts to say something else. That was the uniqueness of Corky, because the way his mind works, and, you know, it’s so expansive, and it just keeps going and going. I just really enjoyed talking to him.”

Takaki had so much footage talking to Corky that she realized that she needed an editor to wrangle all the material into a cohesive story. That editor, who helped put together a trailer in 2012 and was brought on fully in 2015, was Linda Hattendorf, the director of the moving documentary The Cats of Mirikitani. “Linda is the heart and soul of the film outside of Corky, in my opinion,” Takaki insisted. “I knew what I wanted, but she executed it brilliantly. And I think that, you know, our collaboration (on the film) was hugely important.” Photographic Justice is Takaki’s first film as director and cinematographer; she has acted in several indie films.

The film features many terrific images of Corky (as a young hippie community activist!) and images that Corky shot over five decades, from anonymous Chinese at a protest over housing in New York, or well-known AAPI icons like activist Helen Zia, whom he captured when she was leading the rise of the modern Asian American movement in Detroit over the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Corky traveled across the country as needed (especially to attend the annual conferences of the Asian American Journalists Association, where he always donated photographs for the organization’s silent auction).

Garment worker and child by Corky Lee
Garment worker and child in 1976 photo, Image Credit: Corky Lee

He also famously traveled to Promontory Point, Utah, for a unique act of protest. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed there in 1869, a famous photograph celebrating the meeting of trains from the east and west was taken, with dozens of people toasting the event. White people. More than 11,000 Chinese laborers worked on the Central Pacific Railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, but they were not allowed at the site for the celebration. So Corky began inviting AAPIs including descendants of the laborers, to assemble at the two locomotives and pose for a more accurate depiction, which he called “Photographic Justice.” This photoshoot is captured in the 2020 CAAM documentary series Asian Americans.

But although he was happy to take his gear across the country, his heart and soul, his undisputed home base, was always New York, where he was born in Queens in 1947. He died in a hospital in Queens from Covid that he may have caught while documenting neighborhood watch groups protecting the community from anti-Asian hate.

Takaki’s film brings a sense of justice for Corky Lee’s life, work and accomplishments, and in some ways it’s bigger than Corky. It has him front and center, but it’s about the Asian American movement. It’s also very much about New York writ large. Yet, Takaki humanizes Corky by showing a side of him that some viewers who knew the man may not have known. She shows scenes of Corky with his family in Queens as well as his (then) workplace at a printing shop. The film captures Corky’s grief at the loss of his wife Margaret Dea of cancer in 2001 (he breaks down talking about her), and the energy he drew from his new partner in life, Karen Zhou.

Lee family in front of their Queens laundry
Lee family in front of their Queens laundry, Image courtesy of Lee Estate

Takaki even shows how Corky was passionate about mentoring young AAPI photographers so that they could chronicle their communities the way he had for so long. “Corky would just, like, take them under his wing and like, show them around.

“The whole reason I did (the film) was because I wanted to provide him a platform for people to know who he was,” Takaki said. “That was the big battle, to get the story done that would be worthy of Corky and his legacy.”

Mission accomplished. This film is nothing if not the embodiment of Corky Lee’s incredible life’s work and his legacy.

Gil Asakawa is a journalist and blogger (www.nikkeiview.com ) and author of The Toy Book (Knopf, 1991), Being Japanese American (Stone Bridge Press, 2nd edition 2004) and Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! The tasty history of Japanese food in America (Stone Bridge Press, 2022). 

Photographic Justice screens as part of CAAMFest at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, May 14 at the Great Star Theater. Filmmaker Jennifer Takaki and Producer Linda Woo will be present for a Q&A afterwards. Tickets are available at CAAMFest.com.