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In LA, Photographer Corky Lee Inspires The Next Generation

Dozens of photos are strung on clotheslines and attached by clothespins.
Students at California Creative Learning Academy in Eagle Rock took photos after studying Corky Lee's work.
(Josie Huang
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Months of work had led up to this: After studying the late Chinese American photographer Corky Lee, fourth-graders at the California Creative Learning Academy in Los Angeles watched Friday as their teachers hung their photos in an art installation.

Griffin Gaerlan, 9, had taken a striking photo of himself holding up a camera, imitating Lee in a famous self-portrait.

Lee's historic work

It was Lee’s photos documenting police brutality, however, that left the deepest impression on Gaerlan. Lee took photos in New York’s Chinatown when a Chinese American man was beaten by NYPD officers (who had been trying to intervene in a police beating of a teen). Lee’s photos of Peter Yew, with blood streaming down his face as he was led away by police, led to thousands of people in Chinatown protesting against police violence.

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Black-and-white photo of four Asian American men in the foreground locking arms in protest, as a crowd follows behind.
Corky Lee captured pivotal images of Asian American history, like this 1975 protest against police brutality in New York's Chinatown.

“Without these pictures, we wouldn't have any proof, no knowledge of any of this happening,” Gaerlan said. “And it really made an impact on the world.”

His classmate Mayla Stegall, also 9, nodded.

“He was actually there in the moment so he actually knows the truth,” Stegall said. “And he's just trying to show other people so that they understand too.”

C.J. Sellers said Lee's efforts to uncover injustice resonated with him as an African American.

"Some people think that the people in my culture are bad guys," Sellers said. "They're actually sometimes really good people. And I wish that that could stop."

Around the country this month, school kids are marking Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Anna May Wong and Jeremy Lin are some of the most celebrated figures, showing up on fact sheets and in word searches. But figures who are less widely-known outside the Asian American community, like Lee, are also getting their due.

Lee is the subject of a new documentary called Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story that's being screened at the Japanese American National Museum on Sunday. Penguin Random House is set to publish a retrospective of his book in the winter of 2024, according to Lee's estate.

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Lee even landed on the Google home page Friday as its Google Doodle of the day.

Photography as a 'sword'

Gary San Angel, an artist and filmmaker, is part of a group of activists and creatives who are trying to share Lee's work.

A long-time mentee of Lee’s, San Angel taught the photography course to the fourth-graders in Eagle Rock. He explained how Lee — who died of COVID-19 in 2021 at 73 — used his photography as a “sword,” as Lee liked to say, in pursuit of justice.

“What Corky was trying to do is just humanize all our stories,” San Angel said. “Then we can also recognize we are a part of the fabric here in the US.”

San Angel said Lee also worked to rectify the historical record. Lee had long questioned why an 1869 photo taken after the transcontinental railroad was completed was missing any of the Chinese men who built it. In 2014, he restaged the photo, this time with the descendants of the rail workers.

Lee's brother John said the omission had bothered his sibling since high school.

"It took him 50 years but he did it," John Lee said. "I'm sure a lot of people said, 'Why that? There's so much else going on.' But he wanted to go back to the beginning and show that we've been around, we've been doing things."

Lee’s business card had the joking title of the “Undisputed, Unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate,” but it was not far from the truth. He was present at a number of key moments in Asian American history, like when protests broke out in Detroit after the men who killed Vincent Chin in 1982 were allowed to walk.

One of Lee’s most famous photographs was taken after 9/11 at a candlelight vigil, featuring a Sikh man wrapped in an American flag.

A Sikh man is wrapped in an American flag, while standing with a group at a vigil.
After 9/11, when Sikh Americans were being scapegoated and attacked, Corky Lee took this image of a Sikh man at a candelight vigil.
( Corky Lee with permission of the Corky Lee Estate )

But John Lee said some of his brother's favorite photographs were of the mundane moments he captured on the streets, like restaurant workers taking a break or a little girl standing by her mother in a garment factory.

A black and white photo of a little girl standing next to her mother who's working over a sewing machine in a garment factory.
Corky Lee's favorite photos did not capture dramatic moments, but quiet rhythms of life.
(Corky Lee with permission of the Corky Lee Estate )

"These are photos that spoke to everybody, doesn't matter who you are, what you are," Lee said. "That's what Corky did best. He really loved his subjects."

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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