Community mourns Asian American photographer Corky Lee who died from COVID

NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- A photographer from New York City made it his mission in life to chronicle the forgotten members of his community, and his legacy will remain an inspiration even in his death.

"Photographs give Asian Americans visibility about their culture and about the history of Asians in this country and that's my primary mission," photographer Corky Lee said.

Lee would often say his camera was his sword to combat racial injustice.

For 50 years he wielded that sword, inspiring a movement.

Lee spoke to Newsy a few years ago about his iconic shot of protests against police brutality in the city.

"The image was so shocking to a white audience because people have never seen Chinese protesting police brutality," Lee said.

But his mission to fight for equality started with a photo he did not shoot.

"He said, 'there are no Chinese in this photograph, and we were there!' He was very offended," Corky Lee's brother John Lee said.

Corky Lee eventually recreated that photo, gathering six generations -- descendants of those Chinese workers missing from history books. He would call it photographic justice.

RELATED | Young barbers help carry on Chinatown's legacy, bridge generational divide
EMBED More News Videos

CeFaan Kim reports a barbershop in Chinatown is being credited for its effort to bring business back into the community.


"It's really American history that we're reclaiming because without the railroad this country wouldn't be what it is," Corky Lee said.

Lee died on Wednesday from COVID complications in his native Queens.

Journalist and friend Ti-Hua Chang says behind that lens was a heart that rivaled his passion.

"It's suspected he may have gotten COVID working on those patrols to stop the anti-Asian violence," Chang said. "He didn't get paid for this. He did this because of his love for the community, because of his activism and because he faced discrimination growing up in Chinatown and Queens."

Anytime you saw Lee snapping away, you would almost always see fellow journalist Shirley Ng by his side.

"We're just so shocked. And so numb," Ng said. "There's no one else even remotely close to who he is as a person."

He arguably left behind the single largest repository of photographic history of Asian Americans.

RELATED | Chinatown museum, artifacts ravaged in fire restored, reimagined in new space
EMBED More News Videos

CeFaan Kim has more on the restoration of 85,000 artifacts once feared lost forever following a raging fire in Chinatown.


Lee was 73-years-old. He is survived by his brother John, and by an entire community, as well as the history he left behind for all of us to see.

"He pledged him to the community and so the family shared him," John Lee said.

"My mission is to transform America one photograph at a time," Corky Lee said.

national geographic covid newsletter sign up



MORE CORONAVIRUS COVID-19 COVERAGE


Positive COVID-19 cases by zip code - New York City


New York City COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker
New Jersey COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker
Find out if you are eligible and where you can go to get your vaccine
Do you have coronavirus symptoms?
Where to get tested in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut
WATCH: Eyewitness to a Pandemic
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on coronavirus



Submit a News Tip or Question
Copyright © 2021 WABC-TV. All Rights Reserved.