Corky Lee's Asian America: Fifty Years of Photographic Justice

Mae Ngai

Clarkson Potter, 2024

Agent: Sandra Dijkstra

A collection of over 200 breathtaking photos celebrating the history and cultural impact of the Asian American social justice movement, from a beloved photographer who sought to change the world, one photograph at a time.

Known throughout his lifetime as the “undisputed, unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,” the late photojournalist Corky Lee documented Asian American and Pacific Islander communities for fifty years, breaking the stereotype of Asian Americans as docile, passive, and, above all, foreign to this country. Corky Lee’s Asian America is a stunning retrospective of his life’s work--a selection of the best photographs from his vast collection, from his start in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s to his coverage of diverse Asian American communities across the country until his untimely passing in 2021.

Corky Lee's Asian America traces Lee’s decades-long quest for photographic justice, following Asian American social movements for recognition and rights alongside his artistic development as an activist social photographer. Iconic photographs feature protests against police brutality in New York in the 1970s, a Sikh man draped in an American flag after 9/11, and a reenactment of the completion of the transcontinental railroad of 1869 featuring descendants of Chinese railroad workers, and his last photos of community life and struggle during the coronavirus pandemic. Asian American writers, artists, activists, and friends of Lee reflect on his life and career and provide rich historical and cultural context to his photographs, including a foreword from writer Hua Hsu and contributions from artist Ai Weiwei, filmmaker Renée Tajima-Peña, writer Helen Zia, photographer Alan Chin, historian Gordon Chang, playwright David Henry Hwang, and more.

Featuring never-before-seen photographs alongside his best-known images, Corky Lee’s Asian America represents Lee’s mission to chronicle a history of inclusion, resistance, ethnic pride, and patriotism. This is a remarkable documentation of vital moments in Asian American history and a timely reminder that it’s also a history that we continue to make.


“For generations, Corky taught us how to see ourselves—as individuals and as a community.” —From the Foreword by Hua Hsu, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Stay True

“Corky Lee put in the center of his frame working-class women, children, and men who have been erased from the annals, capturing their struggle and solidarity with grit, dedication, and beauty. Corky Lee’s Asian America is an enduring and important book about Asian American resistance that will help change the way we look at American history.” —Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings

“Corky Lee’s remarkable images demonstrate how crucial it is to make sure that Asian Americans are seen, first and foremost, as themselves. His oeuvre is a valuable and moving record of Asian American existence, culture, and activism. Not least, his work is a critical testimony to the Asian American movement of which he was a part, and which he helped to preserve through his photographs.” —Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of A Man of Two Faces

“These stunning photographs by Corky Lee and the stirring essays by those who knew him will take your breath away. For fifty years Corky was the fly on the wall of Asian American–Pacific Islander life. Every image he produced was that of an artist with deep knowledge and commitment to his subject, not that of some outsider searching for easy stereotypes.” —Juan González, cohost of Democracy Now!

“What a fantastic celebration of both the documented and the documenter! To see Asian American history as it was made, and to feel the power of witness—this is the tribute to Corky Lee that he amply deserves, and a gift of incalculable value to American history.” —Gish Jen, author of Thank You, Mr. Nixon

“Corky Lee and his photographs not only documented the most significant transformations in Asian America, they also inspire us to work toward justice. Corky Lee’s Asian America is the book that we have been waiting for. It will become an instant classic that inspires the next generation of artists and activists to continue the work that Corky began.” —Erika Lee, professor of history, Harvard University

Corky Lee’s Asian America makes visible the unseen contours of a vibrant, dynamic, and diverse Asian American community. This selection will no doubt become an invaluable resource and inspiration for all who want to ‘think and know more’ about the individuals who became artists, protestors, educators, and activists fostering a sense of Asian American community, together.” —Stephanie H. Tung, Byrne Family Curator of Photography, Peabody Essex Museum