Corky Lee on My Mind: Karen Zhou

Photographer Karen Zhou with her picture

Children laughing and playing, throwing confetti in the air (Chinatown, NYC)

"I took this photo after a Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown. It made it on the cover of Chinatown: Lens on the Lower East Side, a book that Corky helped to co-curate with Carolyn Ratcliffe. Corky and I would go together to photograph Lunar New Year in Chinatown. We loved capturing the festivities and seeing many of our friends there. The celebration would bring the community together. After the parade, the streets would be filled with confetti and the restaurants would be filled with customers. Corky and I would sit down to edit our photos and we'd get a bite to eat. Those were always very happy times."

How did you know Corky?

“I met Corky many years ago at a banquet dinner in Chinatown. He was autographing a book called Voices of Healing in which he had a cover photo of a Chinatown firefighter. I didn't know who Corky was at the time but I knew he was special by how passionate he was sharing stories about Chinatown post 9/11. When he handed me his business card, the title read, "the undisputed unofficial Asian American photographer laureate.” It had humor in it and it was uniquely Corky. He lived by that title to not only document but to get Asian American stories in the news for all these years.

“From the moment we met, he was a great influence on my life. First by opening my eyes to the APA community I never knew about. I had grown up in a non-Asian neighborhood and had little exposure to other Asian communities and Corky would bring me to all sorts of APA events, and that's how I knew how rich in culture and history the APA community was. Much of what I learned of photography was from Corky who took me under his wing. As time went by, he just grew on me and eventually a romance blossomed. We liked each other's company, shared common values and had common interests. We'd photograph together often and sometimes separately depending on our schedules. We respected and understood each other's work. 

“I went with Corky for the past five years to Utah to support his Transcontinental Railroad reenactment photo project. The first year was the hardest because we didn’t know what the turn out would be like but people came out for Corky. By the 150th Anniversary of Golden Spike, Corky's efforts as a catalyst led to hundreds of APA uniting together in front of the two locomotives for Corky to reclaim history. I knew then the story was more than about the omission of Chinese railroad workers — it was also about him. He lived his life committed to combating injustice, indifference, and discrimination. I wished this pandemic had never happened and as great as the loss is, it will never change how much I loved him.”


Karen Zhou is a documentary photographer from New York City focused on storytelling through photos. She’s an award recipient of the AAJA Photo Shootout in Los Angeles and was recognized by Nassau County Legislator, Judi Bosworth for her photography of the Asian American community. Her photos have been exhibited at Gallery 456, the New York Arts Center, the Wing Luke Museum's Life Wide Angle/Close Up, and as part of ThinkChinatown’s 2020 Chinatown Arts Week with the late photographer, Corky Lee, and Edward Cheng. Additionally, her work has been published in National Geographic’s Holidays Around the World: Celebrate Chinese New Year and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative’s Chinatown: Lens on the Lower East Side. She was a contributing photographer to AsAmNews as well as other ethnic publications.

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