Corky Lee Biography, Pioneering Asian American Photographer and Activist


Corky Lee was a pioneering photographer and activist who documented the experiences of Asian Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States. This post explores his life, work, and legacy, including his early life and education, photographic career, and later years.

Corky Lee


Corky Lee was an American photographer known for his powerful images documenting the experiences and struggles of Asian Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States. Lee, who was born in Queens, New York in 1948, began his career as a photographer in the late 1960s and went on to become one of the most prominent and influential Asian American photographers of his generation. He was a tireless advocate for social justice and used his camera to document everything from the civil rights movement to the experiences of Asian American communities living in urban centers across the country. Lee passed away in January 2021 due to complications from COVID-19, leaving behind a powerful legacy of photography and activism.

Early life and education

Corky Lee was born as Young Kwok Lee on June 25, 1948, in Queens, New York. His parents were Chinese immigrants who ran a laundry business in Queens. Lee grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and experienced racism and discrimination firsthand. As a child, he was often called derogatory names and was excluded from certain activities because of his ethnicity.

Lee attended New York City public schools, including Bayside High School in Queens, where he discovered his love for photography. He went on to study photography at Queens College, City University of New York, where he was mentored by photographer Walter Rosenblum.

During his college years, Lee became involved in social justice movements and began using his photography as a tool for activism. He documented protests and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, as well as civil rights and labor movements. Lee’s experiences during this time helped shape his approach to photography and laid the groundwork for his later work documenting the experiences of Asian Americans and other marginalized communities.


Photographic work

Corky Lee’s photographic work focused on documenting the experiences and struggles of Asian Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States. He was particularly interested in highlighting the diversity within the Asian American community and challenging stereotypes and prejudices about Asian Americans.

Lee’s photographs covered a wide range of topics, including the immigrant experience, labor movements, civil rights demonstrations, and cultural events. Some of his most well-known images include a photograph of Asian American activists holding a banner that reads “I Am an American” during a protest against the Vietnam War in 1971, and a photograph of a group of Asian American teenagers breakdancing in front of the New York Public Library in the 1980s.

Lee’s work was published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, and was exhibited in galleries and museums around the world. He was also a prolific speaker and educator, frequently giving talks and workshops on photography and social justice.

Lee’s photographs have had a lasting impact on the way Asian Americans are represented in American society and have helped to raise awareness about the experiences of marginalized communities. His work continues to inspire new generations of photographers and activists who are committed to social justice and equality.

Later life

In his later life, Corky Lee remained a passionate advocate for social justice and continued to document the experiences of marginalized communities through his photography. He served as the official photographer for the Asian American Arts Alliance and was a founding member of the Asian American Journalists Association.

Lee also continued to receive recognition for his work. In 2016, he was awarded the AARP AAPI Hero Award for his contributions to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. In 2020, he was honored with the New York City Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture.

Sadly, Lee passed away on January 27, 2021, due to complications from COVID-19. His death was widely mourned by the photography and social justice communities, and his legacy as a pioneering Asian American photographer and activist continues to inspire others to this day.



Corky Lee received numerous awards throughout his career for his contributions to photography and social justice. Here are some of the most notable awards he received:

  • 1993: Outstanding Artist Award from the New York State Council on the Arts
  • 1999: Pioneer Award from the Organization of Chinese Americans
  • 2002: Susan Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice from the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance
  • 2008: American Courage Award from the Asian American Justice Center
  • 2013: Lifetime Achievement Award from the Asian American Arts Alliance
  • 2016: AARP AAPI Hero Award
  • 2019: Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Press Photographers Association
  • 2020: New York City Mayor’s Award for Arts & Culture

These awards reflect the impact of Corky Lee’s work as a photographer, activist, and educator, and the profound influence he had on the Asian American and social justice communities.

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