Black and white image of marchers protesting the police beating of Peter Yew.

Focus on Justice: The Photography of Corky Lee

Exhibition on view May 1 through 31 in the New York State Capitol
Exhibition on View
Focus on Justice: The Photography of Corky Lee
Monday – Friday, 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
May 1 - May 31, 2024
Governor's Reception Room, 2nd Floor
New York State Capitol

Black and white image of Corky Lee holding a camera.

Corky Lee, Self Portrait. NYC, 1990s.

“Every time I take my camera out of my bag, it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice, and discrimination and trying to get rid of stereotypes.” -Corky Lee

Celebrated photographer and activist Corky Lee began his career documenting the lives, struggles, and contributions of Asian Americans in New York and beyond. His work not only brought awareness to the Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community but visually presented a retelling of AAPI history through the lens of the everyday Asian American. Through honoring Lee and his work, the State of New York celebrates 2024 Asian American and Pacific Islanders Heritage Month.

Lee did not restrict himself to only taking photographs of Chinese Americans. In New York City, he became a permanent fixture at every AAPI event, earning the title “Undisputed, Unofficial, Asian American Photographer Laureate.”

Lee’s passion for the AAPI community continued until his very last photographic project which depicted a group of Guardian Angels working to halt the spread of anti-Asian sentiment in New York City during the outbreak of COVID-19. Lee passed away shortly after in January 2021 at the age of 73 from COVID-19 complications.

New York State is the proud home of more than 1.6 million Asian Americans, and New York City alone is home to more residents of Asian descent than any other city outside of Asia.

Asian Americans helped build our state and country into what it is today, and the contributions of this community make our state stronger, more resilient, and more innovative. From standing up against anti-Asian hate, and investing in AAPI communities, to celebrating Asian culture, such as signing a new law declaring the Asian Lunar New Year a public-school holiday across the state, and Diwali as a NYC school holiday, New York remains dedicated to fighting for Asian American New Yorkers every day.

Black and white image of marchers protesting the police beating of Peter Yew.
20,000 Marchers protest the police beating of Peter Yew, Foley Square, NYC. 1975

In the 1970s, as Asian immigration into New York swelled, bigotry, discrimination, and police brutality towards these communities also increased.

On April 26, 1975, Peter Yew was brutally beaten and wrongfully jailed, stripped, and beaten again by police after he asked them to stop beating a 15-year-old teenager who was in a crowd of protestors. The attack on Yew sparked outrage and protests nationwide.

On May 19, 1975, the largest Asian American protest in United States history occurred in New York City’s Chinatown with an estimated 20,000 people in attendance. Corky Lee was present and navigated through the crowds, documenting every moment. The protests were successful in having the charges against Yew dropped and were a catalyst for raising awareness for Asian American rights in New York and the nation. 

Black and white image of a man injured and being escorted by police.
Peter Yew Protest, City Hall, NYC. 1975
This iconic photograph portrays a man injured by police while protesting police brutality inflicted on Peter Yew. It was one of the earliest photographs Lee sold and his work gained more attention after appearing on the cover of The New York Post in 1975. 

Black and white image of two women holding protest signs.
The sign in Chinese reads: “Down with racist oppression. Justice for Peter Yew now. Unite and fight to victory.” NYC, 1975.

Black and white image of students and teachers holding protest signs for bilingual education.
Students and a teacher at Junior High School 65 rally for the need for bilingual education at Chatham Square. Chinatown, NYC. 1971

Black and white image of children in a garment-making factory.
Women often brought their children with them to work in the garment-making factories until 1983, when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union opened a childcare center in Chinatown. NYC. 1976.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, New York City’s Chinatown had a robust garment industry where thousands of women, mostly Chinese immigrants, worked long 12-hour days for insufficient wages. Women were often left with no options but to stay at home or bring their children to the factories when they could not afford or find childcare.

In 1982, after years of unsuccessful lobbying for childcare, safer working conditions, and better wages, over 20,000 garment workers went on strike. Not only was the strike successful in having unions open daycare centers in Chinatown, but it energized and mobilized Asian American women to bring attention to labor, gender, and class rights in their communities. 

Black and white image of a female taxi driver.
Mrs. Lily Chow, the first Chinese woman to drive a taxi in New York. NYC, 1982.

Image of Sikhs at a candlelight vigil.
Sikhs at a Sept. 11th Candlelight Vigil, Central Park, NYC. 2001
Corky Lee captured this photograph during a candlelight vigil held four days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City. The attacks were carried out by a radicalized Islamic group, resulting in a rapid increase of anti-South Asian, and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. As Islamophobia and hate crimes escalated, many South Asian Americans were subjected to prejudice and mistreatment and forced to defend their citizenship.

In this photograph, Corky Lee confronts this discrimination. A Sikh man, many of whom were targets of post-9/11 hate crimes, stares directly at the viewer draped in an American flag, reminding the audience that he too is an American citizen grieving the unfortunate events of the attacks. This powerful image aims to combat the dangerous stereotypes that many Asian Americans continue to face. 

Black and white image of South Asians protesting.
South Asians protest the Bush administration’s war against Iraq. Union Square, NYC, 2001.

Thank You

All images within the exhibition and online are courtesy of the Corky Lee Estate.