A new photography exhibit gives Utahns a look into how Asian-American activist and photojournalist Corky Lee contributed to Utah's Asian community.

“Making History” opened at the Chinatown Supermarket in South Salt Lake Tuesday night. The free exhibit is open to the public until October. It is the first solo exhibit of photographer Karen Zhou, who organized it in honor of Lee, who was her longtime partner.

Lee’s work highlighted the stories of Asian Americans that were ignored by mainstream media and history as a whole, including the stories of Chinese railroad workers and their descendants in Utah. His career began by documenting the inequities and injustices in his own community in New York's Chinatown, but eventually expanded to the Asian and Pacific Islander community as a whole.

“He wanted to kind of right a wrong, to reclaim history in his own way,” Zhou said. “He wanted to make sure that that Asians have visibility. ... He just had this unwavering purpose and mission, and it was a sacrifice on his part to do all the work that he did.”

She said hosting the exhibit at Chinatown, one of the couple's first stops on their initial trip to Utah, and during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, is very meaningful.

Although Lee was born in New York City to Chinese immigrants, his career had roots in Utah — a 1869 photo taken in northern Utah, to be exact.

Lee first saw the photo — which celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah — in a junior high social studies course textbook. He immediately noticed an obvious omission in the photo. He took out a magnifying glass, but the closer look confirmed that only white laborers were pictured and that the massive contributions of thousands of Chinese railroad workers had been intentionally ignored.

The photo would lead Lee to visit the Beehive State numerous times in an effort to set the historical record straight. In 2002, he organized over a hundred Asian Americans for a photo at that year's Organization of Chinese Americans convention in Salt Lake City. It was progress, but Lee wasn't satisfied.

In 2014, he organized an even bigger group to recreate that 1869 photo at the 146th anniversary of the Golden Spike ceremony at Promontory Summit, the original location of the 1869 photo.

“Taking photos of descendants and their family, Corky wanted to go with them to the Chinese Arch, one of the oldest Chinese railroad worker campsites in America. These Utah locations meant a lot to him,” Zhou said. “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.”

Karen Zhou speaks at the launch of her first solo exhibit, "Making History," in the Chinatown Supermarket in South Salt Lake on Tuesday.
Karen Zhou speaks at the launch of her first solo exhibit, "Making History," in the Chinatown Supermarket in South Salt Lake on Tuesday. | Sydnee Gonzalez, KSL.com

Lee continued traveling to Utah. By 2019, he had photographed the largest number of Chinese railroad descents ever at Promontory Summit. It was Lee's last time participating in what had become an annual pilgrimage to the site. Lee died at 73 in 2021 of COVID-19.

“Utah had a special place in his heart because of junior high school, and completing that was his lifelong dream,” Zhou said.

Zhou is still mourning the lost of Lee, whom she called her best friend, but she plans on making the trip to Promontory Summit without him on Wednesday. It's a tradition she hopes to continue in his memory.

“I believe that Corky will want to continue where he left off, and there's just a groundswell of support here so you can see there's a lot of love for him. I would like to continue that and continue to photograph so long as people want to.”

If the exhibit’s launch is any indication, there is strong support for such an endeavor. Dozens of individuals gathered at Chinatown Supermarket in South Salt Lake, including both West and East Coast visitors, to honor Lee.

“He was so passionate that he put this spark into all of us, our whole community,” said Utah Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Salt Lake City. “Corky was someone that lived in New York, but I think his heart was all of Asian Americans right here in Utah. He really changed history.”

Edith Mitko, a Utah member of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, encouraged others to honor Lee’s legacy by recognizing the issues he highlighted through his camera lens.

“I really don't want Corky or what he stood for to ever be lost. So all of us that are here have to be mindful of the systemic racism that Corky tried to point out,” Mitko said. “This is one of Corky's quotations: ‘Every time I take my camera out of my bag, it is like drawing a sword to combat indifference, injustice and discrimination and tying to get rid of stereotypes.’”