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Meet Corky Lee, photographer of Asian America

Posted on | March 28, 2010 | 8 Comments

Photojournalist Corky Lee

By Jason Jem

We’re thrilled to announce the next interview of’s Asian American Empowerment Series, a free one-hour conversation with award-winning photojournalist Corky Lee, who has captured Asian America through his lenses for over three decades!

You’ve missed our conversation with Corky, but for a limited time, you can still register to listen to the call and see the slideshow of the Top 10 photos from below that you chose, and hear Corky’s stories about them. REGISTER NOW for the call, which will be held Tuesday April 20 at 6 pm PT — this one’s going to be extra-special!

In addition to the conversation that you can listen to via phone or webcast, we’ll be showing Corky’s work in a slideshow, and you can vote on your 10 favorite images from the 30 shown here, and Corky will discuss the Top 10 during our talk!

We’ve been privileged to know Corky for a few years. The New York-based photographer has been a fixture at Asian American events, gatherings, meetings, conventions and protests since the 1970s, when the idea of “Asian Americans” instead of separate Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, etc communities was a new concept. We first met Corky when he was in Denver for an annual banquet of the Organization of Chinese Americans and Japanese American Citizens League. He was there to auction off a framed print of a group shot he took, of Chinese American descendants of 1800s railroad workers who worked on the joining of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, a big event in American history (the first time that the east and west coasts were connected in trade and commerce by a transcontinental railroad). If the photo is chosen by you (it’s #18), Corky will explain the image.

We’ve run into Corky at various conventions for the Asian American Journalists Association, a group he’s very deeply involved with. He received the Dr. Susan Ahn Civil Rights and Social Justice Award, a great honor that he deserves, from the AAJA at the organization’s national convention last year in Boston.

Corky’s a self-taught photographer, and the “undisputed unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate.” The ubiquitous Corky has covered the day-to-day lives of Asian Pacific Americans, and he’s been there to capture some historical moments in American history.

For over 30 years, Corky has used his camera to ensure that the faces of Asian Pacific Americans and their experiences be included in American history. His mission has been to document the incredibly diverse Asian American communities ignored by mainstream media. In an interview in AsianWeek Corky commented, “I’d like to think that every time I take my camera out of my bag, it’s like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination, trying to get rid of stereotypes.”

At once intensely personal and socially conscious, Corky’s self-styled photojournalism crosses the divides of different Asian nationalities, and presents a rich picture of AAPIs adjusting and finding their place in America. As a photojournalist imbued with an unyielding passion for community activism, he’s challenged stereotypes by offering diverse images from the often invisible and excluded Asian Pacific American communities.

His work, which has been described as “only a small attempt to rectify omissions in our history text books,” has appeared in Time magazine, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Associated Press, The Villager and Downtown Express, as well as exhibitions throughout the United States, including Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu and Denver. On college campuses, his photographs have been exhibited at Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, Princeton and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Lee contends that he owes much of his success to the Asian American press, notably A. magazine, Filipinas magazine and Koream Journal in addition to the following newspapers: AsianWeek, Asian New Yorker, NY Nichibei, Rafu Shimpo, International Examiner and Hawaii Herald.

Born and raised Queens, N.Y., Lee is a second-generation Chinese American and the eldest child of a “paper son” laundryman and a seamstress. Lee is a graduate of Queens College and lives in Queens.

He was the 2002 Artist-In-Residence at New York University’s Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program.

Corky Lee’s photographs are in 40 to 50 books, including a retrospective he’s publishing this year. Three of Corky’s photographs are included in a recently published coffee table book, “100 NY Photographers” edited by Cynthia Dantzic and published by Schiffer Book Publishing.

His images are in good company, flanked by work from the likes of Bruce Davidson, Annie Leibovitz, Jay Maisel, Elliot Erwitt and Mary Ellen Mark — all iconic photographers of the last century.

We’re honored to have such a heavyweight of Asian American culture and media join us for our next call!


8 Responses to “Meet Corky Lee, photographer of Asian America”

  1. Wai Ng
    April 13th, 2010 @ 3:58 pm

    Love Corky’s work. His photography speaks the truth and inspires us all to do the right thing.

  2. Yunah
    April 19th, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    Great works!! Congratulations Corky!

  3. Ken
    April 19th, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    We need more people like Corky. I’ve known Corky for almost 20 year now and really appreciate the work he does for the Asian community. He has gotten some really amazing shots, and is able to give the world a different perspective through his lens. Great work!

  4. Gerald Paul (nee Tadashi) Sakura
    April 19th, 2010 @ 12:59 pm

    question for Corky on his 4/20 interview:

    How can we Asian American’s use our life experience to solve one of the most urgent existential problems of our time: The Palistinian/Isreali Conundrum?
    attached below:

    1. A summary of my forth comming book; my background; the news article announcing my run for US Congress

    1. “Michelle Malkin, I Want You…”
    “To conduct a civilized debate”…
    But if you want war
    Then, in the Name of that Famous
    Warrior…”Bring It On”
    (author’s note. One one side of the front cover will be the famous carton of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying “I Want You” in this case, michelle, on the other side,
    A US Amry WWII photo of me looking forlorn (defiant?) from the army train window being hauled off to “Camp” Minadoka (when I was 3 years old), as a US Navy Officer and advisor to a captain of a Vietnamese gun boat (25 years old) during the Vietnam War; in my navy officer dress whites upon graduation from the Navy Officer’s Candidate School (23 years old) and a photo of the bomb explosion cloud over Hiroshima, 1945)

    by Gerald Paul (nee Tadashi) Sakura

    Blue Dog Democratic Candidate,
    2nd Congressional District,
    New Jersey, Atlantic County

    Sugested Debate:Gerald Sakura verses Michelle Malkin: Topics: In Defense of Internment, Lobbyists, Health Care Reform, Subprime Mortgages, Credit Default Swaps, Derivatives, REPOs Immigration, Abortion, Gay Marriage, Palestine Israeli Conflict, Al-Qaida,
    Harry Reid, Trent Lott, Out Sourcing, Privatization (Blackwater, Halliburton), TARP, Post Bail Out Econometrics, John Yu, Esq., Michael Steele

    2. About the author

    Encouraged by his soft-spoken father who often said, “Where we come from we measure a man from the neck up”, Gerald Paul Sakura (nee Tadashi) found himself watching, in fascination, a three-hour interview on the Book TV program “After Words” as Michelle Malkin, the beautiful and wildly popular author and blogger pontificate on her inflammatory book, “In the Defense of Internment”. At 69 years old, Sakura had an epiphany, “Wow, I can do that”. Thus, this book was written in only 20 days, partially due to the miracle of the Dragon Speak speech recognition software and the outpouring from his heart of hearts; remarkable life experiences, and the “Cray Computer Chaos-Like Random Access Memory which operates like the amygdule to the frontal cortex in some thinkers like Einstein, and Leonard da Vinci. (The subject of another Sakura book)

    Sakura was born the month and year in which Germany invaded Poland, 9/14/39 in the small logging town of Eatonville, Washington at the base of majestic Mount Rainier (the town made famous by the quote made at the O. J. Simpson trial, “if the glove does not fit you can’t convict”, Mark Furman. The day after Pearl Harbor Sakura’s loyal, American born father took him to the hospital of his birth and officially changed his beautiful sounding name “Tadashi” to the American “Gerald”. Sakura would later quip, “No wonder I’m screwed up, my dear father changes my name and then spells it like a girl with a “G”!

    During WWII, Sakura’s father, Chester, and his three brothers “set the record” for the number to volunteer while interned at “Camp” Minidoka, Idaho to fight against the Nazis while their respective wives and 11 sons and daughters were still held in one of the 11 “camps” which held a total of 110,000 Japanese Americans, the vast majority born in the United States of America, for three years to prevent the West Coast from potential spy activity. (Years later, when Sakura received a check for $20,000 accompanying an official gold embossed White House letter signed by a fellow comrade in arms, Bush the Elder, he spat on it; tore it into tiny pieces, threw it on the ground; stomp on it; and screamed out in angst, “You can’t buy my freedom for a lousy $20,000.” However, he did later confess that his act of defiance was with a photocopy of the check! (He is still, however, slightly annoyed by the comment of President Truman, “If I had the chance to save just one American soldier I’d do it all over again and drop “Fat Boy” which annihilated 70,000 (mainly) civilians in seven seconds”, .. “This is the subject of another forthcoming Sakura book, “Hidden Agenda, The Power of Fear and the Great Power of Lobbyist to Create Too Much Wealth for Too Few People.”

    After WWII the Elder Sakura found it hard to get a good job because of lingering prejudice, so for six years after the war, the family lived in the “projects”, in this case “Park” Law in Milwaukee Wisconsin. The four Sakura brothers went to truly embody the American Dream: first born, Jon David, became a Harvard Ph.D., Chester Junior became a plastic surgeon/medical missionary to Kenya and later an Air Force doctor serving in Korea; the youngest, Norman Bruce, retired as a compassionate well respected OB&GYN. Gerald could have become a Ph.D. in psychology and mathematics except for the fact that when he was a graduate student at Columbia University, he volunteered to become a Navy officer to fight in Vietnam

    Gerald went on to a career in international business in London, Japan and China, settled in Newport Beach California in 1976 where he became a vice president of a national commercial real estate development company; and cofounded the Southern California Venture Capital Symposium where he merged two companies from Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo; followed by a merger of companies from Vancouver Canada and Osaka Japan. His final 14 years prior to retirement were spent as senior vice president of a sister company of PIMCO, the largest bond trading and advisory corporation in the world, a subsidiary of Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. founded by Leland Stanford in 1834. (Sakura often quips that he was a borderline Master of the Universe, an original MOUSE of Credit Default Swaps.). Sakura is now retired from the business world and living in New Jersey (exit 36!) He is starting his final career by running for US Congress (November 2010) under the slogans, “ and “” as well as working on several books including “A New Econometric Paradigm: the Cause and Cure for our Current Chaos.” and a superhero teen book designed to help teens develop a love for reading, “If I Can’t be like Mike, I want to Think Like Barack”.

    3. News article re: Run for US Congrss:

    Egg Harbor Township man, not Van Drew, hopes to challenge LoBiondo in fall
    By DANIEL WALSH, Staff Writer | Posted: Friday, January 22, 2010

    Gerald Sakura sits at the piano with his U.S. Navy commendation in his Burnside Drive home in Egg Harbor Township.

    Photo by: Anthony Smedile
    U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo has his first congressional challenger, and it’s not state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.
    Egg Harbor Township resident Gerald Sakura said he will run against LoBiondo, R-2nd, as an Independent Democrat, provided he gets his party’s nomination.
    Meanwhile, Van Drew ruled out a congressional candidacy Thursday after previously leaving open the option of a run.
    “I’m not going to be running in this cycle,” said Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic.
    Sakura, 70, who has lived in New Jersey for six years, spent much of his career as an international business consultant and pension fund advisor in London, Asia and Newport Beach, California.
    He said he plans to accept no campaign money from lobbyists and that their overwhelming influence on U.S. politics is a bigger target for him than LoBiondo.
    “He is so well-liked, so well-respected,” Sakura said of LoBiondo this week. “I hold him no ill will. I’m not running against him. I’m running against the idea of lobbyists running our country.”
    Sakura is the first Democrat to make his candidacy publicly known.
    Van Drew has been the presumptive favorite of many Democrats for the past three years in the 2nd District, which spans Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties, and parts of Gloucester, Camden and Burlington counties.
    Sakura has yet to discuss his candidacy with his Atlantic County Democratic Party Chairman Pat D’Arcy.
    D’Arcy welcomed Sakura’s candidacy but stressed that he needs to be prepared for the rigors of a campaign, such as fundraising and knocking on many doors in many neighborhoods.
    “We need new blood,” D’Arcy said. “There’s no question about it.”
    Jason Galanes, a spokesman for LoBiondo, said the congressman would have no comment on Sakura’s candidacy.
    Sakura said he does not plan to run a traditional campaign but will rely more on debates on Face Book, Utube and a Goggle Blog (22 debates, one per week, beginning February 1) to get his message out on such existential issues as: al-Qaida, the Israeli Palestine Conundrum, Credit Default Swaps as it applies to Wall Street verses Main Street, and balanced reform of Health Care and Campaign Finance, among other issues. .. He plans to launch a Web site, (as of Feb 1) and asked that voters in his district to contact him; and, in fact, from any district in the US who feel that lobbyists have too much influence. “If this new Paradigm can possibly work then “We the People” can finally regain control of our Nation.” Contact him at
    Contact Daniel Walsh:856-649-2074

  5. Gerald Paul (nee tadashi) Sakura
    April 20th, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    Corky. You have great insight(s) into the psycological mindset of Asian Americans in America. Best of success in this important endeavor.

  6. Heather Harlan
    April 20th, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    I have worked with Corky for 15 years on stories for Asianweek and other media. Although he is widely known as the “undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate”, he is also a role model of excellence for all journalists, no matter what ethnicity. He covers his beat with passion and dedication. He has been a real inspiration to me in my own development as a journalist, always encouraging me to follow stories that other media ignore and helping me to see why APA stories are important to all of us. Congratulations Corky! Best Wishes, Heather Harlan.

  7. bonnie strain white
    March 22nd, 2011 @ 5:27 pm

    Hi Jerry – Real Estate??? Politics? WOW
    I still remember your cooking shrimp tempura for us at 34 West 95th Street in 1962.

    Jerry White just retired from Cushman and Wakefield. I am an artist, property manager and tennis player. Send me an e-mail!!

    Bonnie Strain White

  8. Michael Matthews
    July 1st, 2012 @ 5:24 pm

    I have known the artist for many years as former photojournlist in New York City.

    He is one of the best in the business. He is the # 1 Asian American photographer in the USA to advance the rights and time and life of the Asian American community in New York City.

    Good luck my good friend Corky Lee.

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