Award-winning photojournalist Corky Lee passed away at the age of 73 on Wednesday due to complications from COVID-19.
The legendary photographer, who became known for his work covering the lives and struggles of the Asian American community, started experiencing symptoms of the virus on Jan. 3, CNN reports.
Lee was brought to the Long Island Jewish Hospital in Forest Hills on Jan. 7 and then moved to the ICU on Jan. 11.
With a career spanning over five decades, Lee became known as a community activist who pushed for the inclusion and recognition of Chinese Americans. He captured photos of events of cultural and political relevance, such as civil rights protests, immigration legislation and theatrical events, according to Reuters.
As a self-trained freelancer, Lee began his advocacy in 1965 while a student at Queens College, studying American history.
An official photo of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, piqued his interest as it did not show the Chinese workers who largely worked on it until its completion in 1868.
Lee would later organize a flash mob of about 250 Chinese Americans during the 145th-anniversary celebration of the Golden Spike Transcontinental Railroad. During the gathering that he called a “Photographic Act of Justice,” many of the descendants of the workers wore period costumes and posed for his photo.
Corky Lee, the unofficial photo laureate of the Asian-American community, has died of COVID. The photo that epitomizes his work was this recreation of the famed Golden Spike Transcontinental Railroad with descendants of railroad workers. https://t.co/oWa3oWPLsS
— Jennifer 8. Lee (@jenny8lee) January 27, 2021
He was instrumental in inspiring a protest march from Chinatown to City Hall in 1975 with the New York Post publishing his photo on the front page, featuring a Chinese American man bloodied by New York City police.
Corky was a fighter, an artist, and a pillar of Chinatown activism. His passing is an unimaginable loss to our entire community, and to the Asian-American diaspora across the country. His dedication to justice lives on in all who had the opportunity to learn from him.#restinpower pic.twitter.com/upAYypOydQ
— Christopher Marte (@ChrisMarteNYC) January 27, 2021
Using his camera, Lee also documented the protests against the murder of Vincent Chin, a young Chinese American killed by local autoworkers in Detroit in 1982.
Lee’s family released a statement on Wednesday evening, grieving the passing of the remarkable photographer.
“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Corky (Young Kwok) Lee. Corky, as he was known to the Asian American community, was everywhere. He always had a camera around his neck, documenting a community event, capturing a social injustice for the record and even correcting the social injustice of an historical event that took place well over a century ago. He did what he loved and we loved him for it.”
“(Corky) had a very unique lens. His passion was to rediscover, document and champion through his images the plight of all Americans but most especially that of Asian and Pacific Islanders,” the statement added. “He has left us with what is likely to be the single largest repository of the photographic history of Asian Americans of the past half century.”
Lee is survived by his partner, Karen Zhou, his brother, John Lee, and sister-in-law, his elder sister’s husband, and both siblings’ children.
Feature Image via Alliance of Ethics & Art