Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | We need this documentary about Corky Lee, the photographer who’s kept his lens on Asian America
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We need this documentary about Corky Lee, the photographer who’s kept his lens on Asian America

Corky Lee is the undisputed master photographer of Asian America. The New York-based journalist has criss-crossed the country for decades and manages to be where the action is, whether it’s a protest over racism or an Asian cultural celebration.

I’ve gotten to know Corky Lee over the last decade because of the Asian American Journalists Association. I know when I attend an AAJA convention or the larger Unity convention that includes AAJA every four years, that he’ll be there, networking and meeting and greeting — he knows everyone. He’s a photographer but he’s not there to chronicle the conventions. He’s there for the fundraising silent auction, where he helps out with the sale of photographs by member journalists, including his own work.

Erin and I have purchased several of his photographs at these auctions, because they’re terrific photojournalism, and because every cent goes toward AAJA. Corky donates his time and his images.

Erin and I also ran into Corky when he visited Denver for an OCA/JACL banquet where we served as emcees. Corky was there to unveil his now-famous photo of Chinese Americans posed at the facing locomotives at Promontory Point, Utah, where the transcontinental railroad met. That’s where Corky first used the term “photographic justice,” because he assembled the crowd and shot the photo as a response to the 1869 photo at the same spot, where a famous photo showed all Caucasians … and none of the thousands of Chinese laborers who helped lay the tracks were in the shot, because they were ordered to stay miles away from the celebration.

When I worked briefly in New Jersey, I next ran into Corky at an Asian festival in Manhattan. He was carrying his equipment, on the prowl for cool images, and we competed for the best shots of singer-songwriter Cynthia Lin. It was the first time I’d heard her, but Corky was familiar with her, of course.

We respect Corky’s work so much that we interviewed him on our show, and asked him to talk about some of his photos — as selected by fans, who voted for their favorites from this slideshow:

Now, a filmmaker named Jennifer Takaki is hoping to complete a documentary about Corky, “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story.” I’m looking forward to seeing it.

Here’s what she says on her IndieGoGo page for the film, about how she was inspired to film Corky:

Corky first came into my radar because I had seen a photograph of his in the New York Times. It was a month before the first anniversary of 9/11. The photo depicted a stoic-looking Sikh wrapped in the US flag. The article was about the photographer and his exhibit. I ripped the clipping out from the paper and filed it, as I used to do for many things that I was interested in re-visiting. It would be less than a year later that my path would cross with Corky’s, purely by happenstance. His name was almost as memorable as the photograph itself.

We have been friends ever since that fateful day we met. The more I got to know Corky, the more I realized that his dedication and passion for documenting the Asian American culture runs deep. He has been doing so for more than 40 years! It had occurred to me that someone should be telling his story in a moving-image format.

I have been covering Corky Lee off and on since 2003 and there is much footage to be edited. It’s time for the big push to finish production and post-production and we need your help. Please join us in our efforts to finish this film in 2012!

But for Takaki to complete her project, which she’s producing and directing, she needs your hep. She’s trying to traise the $20,000 she needs for the film through a site called, where you can sign up to donate towards the project.

It’s kind of like an NPR fund-drive model: She’s giving a premium for donations from $10 and up (for $50 you get a DVD of the film autographed by Corky, plus a postcard and a thank-you note, and a shout-out on Facebook. The big kahuna is a $2,500 donation, which gets you producer credit and every premium beow that level, which includes a dim sum brunch and walking tour of New York’s Chinatown with Lee and Takaki, a photo and a face-to-face photo critique by Lee (travel expenses not included…) and tickets to the premiere and a private reception.

She has 33 days left to raise the $20,000, and she has more than $17,000 to go. If she doesn’t reach the goal, she doesn’t receive any of the funds that have been pledged.

So she needs your support. Corky’ life is worth capturing in a documentary, and Takaki will use the money towards final shooting, post-production and marketing. The film will hopefully help catapult Corky’s book project. Although he’s ubiquitous in Asian American media circles, he’s not much of a self-promoter, and has held down a fulltime job the entire time that he’s been shooting photos for the community.

He’s finally had some recognition with gallery exhibits in recent years, but if any photographer deserved for his work to be captured for all time in a book, it’s Corky. And Takaki’s film likewise is a much-deserved recognition for the man, and his art.

Here’s the link again to the IndieGoGo page for “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story.”

Takaki also has a Facebook page for the film where she posts updates and thanks supporters.