On March 31, the Brandeis Asian American Student Association held its second event to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. This year's theme of “Reflection” aims to “celebrate the efforts by our predecessors to create an hospitable and safe environment for AAPI,” an Instagram caption from BAASA’s account states. Sunday’s event included a screening of “Photographic Justice: The Corky Lee Story,” followed by a question and answer session with director Jennifer Takaki.  

The documentary examines the work and effort made by Chinese American photographer Corky Lee, who began documenting the struggles, success and everyday lives of the Asian American Pacific Islander communities in the early 1950s, primarily in New York City. Lee strived to get the AAPI community into American history and through his photography drew attention to the xenophobic attitudes throughout American history, with the most recent rise in anti-Asian attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You believe what you see,” Lee said in the documentary’s early moments. “In junior high school they showed a photograph of the completion of the railroad. I didn't see any Chinese. The audacity. They didn't want the Chinese to be photographed as part of the celebration.” In the documentary, Lee is referencing a well known photograph from the 1869 “Golden Spike” ceremony. The photo depicts the celebration of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, connecting the eastern and western sections of the railroad with a golden spike. However, the photo does not show the thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States and risked their lives constructing the majority of the western part of the Transcontinental Railroad from 1863 to 1869. It is estimated that between 150 to 2,000 Chinese laborers were killed from tasks like dynamiting mountains for tunnels. 

“That sort of set my course,” said Lee. “I think my contribution was for me to use photography as an organizing tool for social change.” What began as a response to the erasure of Asian American in American history, became a 50-year endeavor to capture moments in Asian American history that many large publications failed to cover. 

Some of Lee’s work included photographing protests held in 1974, by leaders of Asian Americans for Equality, in response to a private firm, the DeMatteis Corporation, refusing to hire Asian construction workers for the construction of Confucius Plaza in NYC’s Chinatown. In 1983, Lee chronicled the uproar and protest by the Asian American community after the Vincent Chen murder trial. Chen, a Chinese-American who was falsely suspected of being Japanese, was accused of having stolen jobs from two laid-off auto workers and was beaten to death. The perpetrators face no jail time. Most recently, Lee photographed the Asian American experience during the COVID-19 pandemic and during the height of anti-Asian hate. 

In January of 2021, Lee passed away at the age of 73 to COVID-19. 

“I don't think people need to remember who I am,” Lee said in the documentary. “It's more important that they remember the images.”

Director Jennifer Takaki, joined the event via Zoom, and shared that she was initially interested in producing five minute vignettes of people in NYC “who had a singular vision.” Takaki elaborated, explaining that the subjects “live life to the beat of their own drum …. In some ways they sacrificed so much for whatever they believed in.” In pursuing the original project, Lee, one of the original subjects, whose story became more and more integrated, ultimately pushed Takakit to shift the project to focus on Corky Lee’s work and legacy. 

“Hanging out with Corky was …  like AAPI history studies every day with him,” Takaki said. “He just made everything so relevant … in everyday conversation. Like he could talk and interject history, like no one you’ve ever met. I find that fascinating.” Lee was very knowledgeable about the AAPI community in NYC, as he attended major events, protests and gatherings, dating back to the 1950s. 

Prior to the beginning of the Q&A session, Takaki asked attendees to raise their hands if they had heard and/or met Corky Lee. Only a couple hands went up. “Yeah, so we have a lot of work to be done because if you meet Corky once you'll never forget him,” Takaki said in response to the low number of hands raised. Although Takaki has been able to get to know Lee for many years, Lee’s work and memory remains unknown to many.

Takaki expressed the desire for the documentary to raise awareness of Corky Lee to the status of Bruce Lee. “Think that they both provided a sense of pride and confidence and a sense of belonging and transcended [in their] own areas,” Takaki said. She thinks that the idea that they can both be “iconic to so many people” sends an important message of unity and community.