Culture  /  Book Excerpt

The Chronicler of Asian America: On Photographer and Activist Corky Lee

“We await our moment, in pursuit of the picture that Corky envisaged, a portrait of a community that is too large and too brilliant.”

It’s probably one of the most useless conversations I can have with a young person: the way things used to be. You can’t imagine the effort it once took to take a simple picture. It required not just possession of an actual camera but also the foresight to carry it around with you, not to mention lighting, manual focus, the cost of film. Nowadays I take more pictures on an average day than I did in entire years in the eighties or nineties, of things I would have never thought to chronicle back then: plates of food, funny street signs, chance encounters with friends. We are awash in images. They feel inevitable.

I’d tell this imaginary young person that we were once so starved for pictures of the world that we would study the ones we had over and over. We would horde and exchange them; entire movements grew out of photographs that captured humanity at its very worst. I would want to explain to this person that we are so lucky that Corky Lee never wavered, never seemed to feel tired or jaded. For fifty years he devoted himself to chronicling the Asian American community—a tricky proposition given the diverse complexities of the category, but he never ran from the complications of this assignment. For Corky, photography was more than the daily registration of our whereabouts. Photography was a way of seeing. And, for generations, Corky taught us how to see ourselves—as individuals and as a community.

Corky was everywhere. The protests and concerts, rallies and opening-night premieres, demonstrations and parties, as well as the rehearsals and planning sessions that preceded them. He took some of the only photos that survive of Chinatown in the seventies, back when it was a nexus of activism: protests against the Vietnam War or police brutality or cruel bosses or miserly landlords. “Every time I take my camera out of my bag,” he once said, “it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice, and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes.” But he was still just a photographer; he had to show up and wait for the right moment.

Some don’t expect to be noticed at all; they’ve been conditioned to see themselves outside of American history, even when they are central to it. These were the people of Corky’s community, the spirit that runs through his portraits of forgotten merchants, old couples showing off their cramped apartments, kids dancing and playing in the street. Pictures of restaurants, factories, cabs, newsstands, and laundries, full of people who didn’t comprehend why he was bothering to take pictures of them.