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AAJA Defined

Behind the Story: Curtis Chin’s new documentary film, “Dear Corky,” pays tribute to the late and legendary photographer

Dear Corkycaptures the breadth of Corky Lee’s life, career and tireless fight for Asian visibility in American photojournalism.

By Hayden Park, Programs and Communications Intern

In 2001, Corky Lee was preparing his photographs for a solo exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. At that time, his wife was in hospice care. When she passed, the museum asked Corky if he wanted to postpone his exhibit.

“I went into the dark room and did all of my grieving printing photographs, in preparation for the exhibit,” Corky said. He grieved in that room for two weeks before he came out, developing photographs tirelessly, day after day.

Tearfully, he added, “You just sort of move on because I think that’s what I think my wife would want me to do.”

Corky Lee shouldered a dutiful, yet weighty commitment to the Chinese American community throughout his life. Despite setbacks in his personal life, he never stopped taking and sharing his photographs.

In some ways, Corky’s photographs served as a safe haven for him. “Photographs help me feel connected to people,” he said. “You can be alone, but not be lonely.”

Screenshot from “Dear Corky,” directed by Curtis Chin. Photograph by Corky Lee.

Corky described his life mission as a commitment to “photographic justice.” He had been photographing Chinatowns since his college days in the late 1960s. Countering the often inaccurate, oversimplified narratives of Asian Americans in the mainstream, Corky sought to increase visibility and illustrate the complexity of Asian Americans through his photographs.

Thanks to the thousands of photographs Corky took throughout his 50-year career, Asian Americans today don’t have to feel lonely, either. Now, filmmaker Curtis Chin seeks to immortalize Corky’s legacy. “Dear Corky” closes the distance between Corky and viewers, allowing them to feel connected to him despite lacking the opportunity to meet in person.

Curtis Chin, documentary filmmaker, journalist, director of “Dear Corky”

Though not yet released, AAJA members in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles were able to attend the pre-premiere screenings of Curtis Chin’s “Dear Corkydocumentary, in addition to a panel with the 1882 Foundation composed of leading photojournalists and filmmakers in D.C. on May 10.

Described by Corky’s brother, John Lee, in an introduction as “an intimate peek into the passions of a very private person,” “Dear Corkyis a short but heartfelt tribute and celebration of the late photojournalist Corky Lee’s life, career and legacy.

It is especially bittersweet that Dear Corky” was created by Curtis, a lifelong friend of Corky’s. When asked to recall his favorite memories with Corky, Curtis told me, “I knew Corky for over thirty years. In that time, he’s taken me to a number of his favorite restaurants in Chinatown. He knew all the backstories of every restaurant!”

Curtis also admired Corky’s knowledge of his own photographs. “He knew everything about the photos that he took, even after decades,” he said.

Bonded by their mutual commitment to serving Asian American communities, the two supported each other throughout their respective careers. Curtis, himself, is an accomplished writer, producer, director and activist whose work cannot be defined by one field alone.

His work primarily focuses on the issues of Asian American identity, activism and sociopolitical advancement. “Since college, I have been active in promoting the Asian American community,” he said.

Curtis co-founded the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a non-profit dedicated to the creation, publication, and dissemination of Asian American creative writing, as well as the group, Asian Pacific Americans for Progress.

His films, Tested,” and “Vincent Who” have been screened with over 600 entities across 16 countries. Chin’s upcoming memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” will be released in the fall of 2023.

“It took a lot of sacrifice on Corky’s part to do what he did.”

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Curtis began production on a documentary about the nation’s oldest Chinatowns, which featured Corky. As the pandemic worsened, Curtis was forced to halt production on his documentary.

Meanwhile, some chose Asian Americans as their scapegoat for the coronavirus, as well as the undeserved targets of hate crimes. Various Asian communities led protests to deter this stigma, many of which Corky attended and photographed.

There was a risk to doing so due to the backdrop of the pandemic, but Corky felt that documenting the community response during this tumultuous time was imperative. It is believed that Corky contracted the deadly virus at one of these anti-Asian hate protests. He passed away in January of 2021. “It took a lot of sacrifice on Corky’s part to do what he did,” Curtis said.

Corky Lee. Photo from AAJA’s 40th anniversary archives.

The AAJA community mourned Corky’s death, as he was a mentor and inspirational figure to many.

Candy Cheng, senior correspondent at Business Insider, reminisced upon the time when she was a student at Columbia University, struggling with her equipment while covering a Manhattan Chinatown beat.

“[Corky] asked me if I needed help and spent the rest of the afternoon walking me door to door, introducing me to every shop owner in town,” she said, “I will never forget this big gesture, and will forever carry on the advice and lessons he taught me.”

In his memory, AAJA-NY created The Corky Lee Fellowship in Photojournalism, a $5,000 grant that will be gifted to two budding photojournalists whose work serves under-represented communities in New York.

With the footage from his original documentary production, Curtis and his team sought to create “Dear Corky” to honor Corky’s career, but also to inspire audience members with Corky’s fighter spirit.

“If I don’t do it, I don’t know who will.”

Seeing that Corky’s impact and contributions were so profound and limitless, it was no easy task to tell Corky’s story concisely.

“I think we wanted to make sure we showed the breadth of his work. Corky really did cover so many different aspects of the community,” Curtis said.

Dear Corky shows Corky as his most authentic self, socializing at his exhibits and community events and strolling around New York, pausing every now and then to snap the perfect picture. Several of his photos were included in the documentary, each of which illustrated the depth of community coverage that Corky documented.

Left to right: Moriah Balingit (AAJA-D.C. chapter president, The Washington Post), Frances Chung (Politico), J.M. (Jo) Giordano (Baltimore School of the Arts), Curtis Chin (documentary filmmaker), Shuran Huang (Freelance Photographer), Kent Nishimura (Los Angeles Times)

According to Moriah Balingit of The Washington Post, who’s covered financial disparities in AAPI communities and pointed out the lower-income communities that Corky covered, Corky’s community coverage “flipped the truck on its head” with the wide variety of jobs and textures represented in stories that he told.

These photos also showed that Corky’s technique in photojournalism as a craft has left an indelible impact on Asian photojournalists today. Kent Nishimura of the Los Angeles Times said Corky established the importance of avoiding exoticization and othering, while bringing the best that he could as a photographer.

“[I admired the] aesthetic quality of the work…he had an incredible sense of rhythm, great sense of depth, an incredible way of working with text that wasn’t trite. He made the text part of the conversation,” Kent said when discussing what he admired about Corky’s technique.

Besides spotlighting his impressive career, the documentary revealed intimate glances at Corky’s hardships. As celebrated as he was, the reality of being Corky Lee was not as glamorous. Curtis himself described Corky as “cranky.”

“Ideas are worth nothing if you can’t generate a paycheck,” Corky lamented. Because his photos were uploaded publicly, many used his work without properly crediting or compensating him.

“I’m okay with not being recognized at this point because as long as the photographs are still around and they’re circulated or deposited, let’s say in the Library of Congress, researchers will start looking,” he said, at peace with his career.

Screenshot from “Dear Corky,” directed by Curtis Chin. Photograph by Corky Lee.

Corky’s commitment to his work often came at his personal expense. In the documentary, he expressed that he’d try to attend three community events daily — he had to endure long commutes, lugged heavy equipment around the city and often lacked the chance to eat at regular hours.

By the time he would get home, Corky described experiencing cramps and physical pain from having to move on his feet all day. He frequently asked himself how much longer he’d be able to go on like this.

When asked why he chose this lifestyle, Corky said, earnestly, “If I don’t do it, I don’t know who will.”

Until the end of his days, Corky fought for the Asian American community and neither his sacrifices nor legacy will be forgotten.

“I do think he got a lot of personal satisfaction from documenting the community and being the Corky Lee. It’s a legacy that I think he was very proud of,” Curtis said.

To view “Dear Corky,” go to Curtis’ personal website and enter your email to subscribe to his newsletter. As a subscriber, you will be notified of future screenings as well as when the film will be available to view on that same website. Connect with Curtis on Twitter and Facebook.

Liked this piece? Share it on social media and follow AAJA Defined as we continue to chat with AAPI journalists and share their stories.

Hayden Park is a Programs and Communications Intern at AAJA and a rising senior at UNC Chapel Hill. She is based in North Carolina. Connect with them on LinkedIn.

Additional reporting/photos by Daniella Ignacio, Programs and Communications Coordinator.

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AAJA Defined showcases the lives and journeys of AAPI media professionals (and allies) shaping global narratives about Asian Pacific America and redefining journalism in inclusive, expansive, and visionary ways. Produced by the Asian American Journalists Association, est. 1981.

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