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Corky Lee

The Ultimate
Asian American
Uses His Craft to Teach Us Our History





by Cindy Wu 

March 2017


Photojournalism is a different kind of photography. You're not looking for a beautiful or sensational shot like regular photographers. No stunning aesthetics. Photojournalism is news. Each picture is meant to tell a story.

Look at the photo above. You may not know why they were all there but given the somber looks on their faces, all the American flags, you can make some accurate assumptions. You can assume they are doing what they have had to do so often as American Sikhs of Indian origin - try to show that just because they are not white and just because they wear a turban as part of their religious faith - they are still Americans.

And that is exactly what this shot is about. After 9/11, when Sikhs immediately became targets of hate crimes by racists thinking they were Muslim terrorists, they rallied together in Central Park on 9/15 to show all Americans that they were Americans too.

Corky Lee won the NY Press Association Award for that shot in 2001.

Lee came into the Media Suite in SAC for his talk on March 24th and silently hung 18 of his photos on the wall. Then he asked each participant to put two post-its on the photo they most wanted him to discuss.

At least one post-it ended up on almost every photo, so he started with the one with the most first and then worked his way down. Each one described some point in Asian American history in New York. Although it is where most of us grew up, none of us knew any of it.


Did we know that the streets in NYC were filled with Chinese Americans protesting police brutality? No. Did we know that the streets of Chinatown and by City Hall were filled with Chinese Americans protesting that Confucius Plaza at least be built with some Chinese workers? No. At least we learned it was a successful protest.

He then gave us Asian American history in a larger framework that encompassed the country. How Chinese Americans had built the western half of the transcontinental railroad but when the photo was taken at Promontory Point joining east and west, there was not one Chinese in the photo. Corky Lee recreated that photo with only Chinese faces to include Asians in the telling of the American story. None of us knew that either.

How a Chinese American, Vincent Chin, had been beaten to death with a baseball bat in Detroit simply because of his race - that to white Americans - not only are Asian Americans the "other", there is no distinction between them. Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was killed because they thought he was a "Jap" and it was the "Japs" who had destroyed the American auto industry. The two men who did it never spent a day in jail. None of us knew that either.


I asked some of the participants what they thought of the talk and here were their responses:


Aaradhana Natarajan

What struck me about the images was their portrayal of people. From the silent stolidity of the Sikh shrouded in the American flag to the commanding calm of the Chinese women campaigning for equal rights, each one of Corky Lee's photographs centered the expressions and embodiment of Asians in America. Despite their varying ages, all of them captured vibrant moments from a history all too often obscured.

During the discussion, I found it interesting when Mr. Lee spoke about integrating signs and symbols in his photography to provide context. The technique was aptly demonstrated in his work. You would not need a caption to understand their context.

Tenzin Norzin

Floating against the pale peach walls of the SAC Media Suite, Corky Lee's photographs provided glimpses into moments of Asian American history and into Mr. Lee's life work to overturn what he calls the "invisibility of Asians in the media."

One photograph in particular caught my eye: a turbaned Sikh man with a large American flag draped around his shoulders stares seriously at the viewer. I love how the red of his turban and the white of his shirt are reflected in the colors of the flag--it was taken sixteen years ago at a 9/11 vigil, but the question of what it means to be American is still relevant today.

And looking at his photos, I found myself realizing that whatever being American means it should not exclude the Asian American community.

Brandon Loo

Corky Lee offered impressive insight into the significance and importance of Asia American photojournalism. I learned that composition and context are vital factors in documentary photography. These are skills that I will use in the future.

Patrick Yang

After attending the Corky Lee workshop I was inspired to do photojournalistic photography. I really enjoyed the videos that he showed. I think that everyone should know more about Asian American events occurring, keep up with what is going on, as well as the history that has occurred in our communities. There's so much history I never knew. 

The videos were
Not On the Menu: Corky Lee's Life and Work
Our Time Is Now: AAPI Influence

I agree with Patrick about that. Everyone should take an Asian American studies class. It would be great if Stony Brook offered a real one every semester, or at the very least, every year. Given that over 25% of Stony Brook's students are Asian American, why we don't is a mystery.

As a CEAS major (and unfortunately most Asian American students are CEAS or STEM with double majors to be able to get full TAP), without lots of wiggle room for extra courses, I would like one simple Asian American history course.

Not Asian American women, not Chinese American (even though I am Chinese), just an Asian American History 101 - so that when the question is asked - Who is Vincent Chin? - I'm not left dumbfounded finding out about the brutal murder of a young man whose death inspired Asian Americans to rise up for their rights and gave birth to the Asian American Studies movement.

We were supposed to have an Asian American Studies program at Stony Brook but courses are few and far between. Last semester one of the Zine staff, Lucy Kong, took what was supposedly an Asian American history course and while she really loved it and the professor, it was really a women's studies course.

Here's what Berkeley offers. Since we're supposed to be the "Berkeley of the East" - this will do just fine.

Introductory comparative analysis of the Asian American experience from 1848 to present. Topics include an analysis of the Asian American perspective; cultural roots; immigration and settlement patterns; labor, legal, political, and social history.

Stony Brook needs its own Asian American Studies movement!

And I think that is what we learned the most from Corky Lee's talk. Not only are we part of America, we deserve to be seen and recognized as part of America.



Below are articles and videos on Corky Lee





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