Story at a glance

  • The intentions of peaceful protestors exercising their right to freedom of speech are sometimes misrepresented by the media and others.
  • That misrepresentation can sometimes lead to unnecessary violence or anger.
  • Photographer and visual journalist Cindy Trinh’s work is devoted to accurately documenting activism, protests and social justice movements in New York City.

It’s not hard to find photos from the inaugural Women’s March of 2017, a veritable sea of pink hats and people holding up signs clad with clever political puns. It was a triumphant moment for a group of people who felt oppressed, frightened or angered by the arrival of President Donald Trump at the White House. What often remains unseen are the smaller protests, the ones that aren’t getting covered by the mainstream media — statements on cardboard and loudspeakers held up by the few but passionate.

Cindy Trinh is a first generation Vietnamese American who grew up in California, first becoming a lawyer and then a photographer, visual journalist and podcast host. Passionate about social justice and human rights, her work sheds light on the work of activists and protesters in New York City as well as immigrant communities around the world. She aims to accurately represent their efforts and show the positive outcomes of people exercising their rights to freedom of speech and protest. 

We got the chance to chat with Trinh about her documentary project highlighting the activism and social justice movements in New York called Activist NYC, who and what is currently inspiring her, and her hopes for 2020.

What was your original inspiration and vision for Activist NYC?

I really dislike how media portrays activists and protesters in the streets. I think that because of the media there is a negative bias towards activists. I want to show activists in a positive light and show the work that they do that the mainstream media often ignores. I cover protests large and small from a variety of causes and issues that affect New York and the country as a whole. My goal is to highlight the diversity of the people who come out to protest in the streets and show the emotion and passion of the people.

I think it is important to document these protests and actions because this is our history, for people to be able to look back on this time and remember what we fought for. I want my photography to leave a lasting impact on people and hopefully broaden and/or change their perspectives.

What has been your most "pinch me" moment so far? Your toughest moment?

In my years of doing Activist NYC, I’ve struggled a lot with dealing with other photographers at the scene, normally aggressive male press photographers who push and shove me because I am an Asian American woman. There are often times when I feel defeated because it is so hard for me to make my work known, and I never think I am going to succeed. But I know I have to keep fighting and pushing myself and continue to do the work I care about.

What personal accomplishment are you most proud of from 2019 so far?

This year I had a great successful year, so I feel pretty good about that! I had five exhibitions, showing my documentary photography about Chinatowns around the world, my travel photography from Vietnam, an art and performance collaboration with an immigrant artists group, and my activism photography for several pop-up shows. I am currently showing two photos at the Museum of the City of New York. I still have so much more I want to accomplish, and I want to keep putting my best work out in the world. I hope for more successes in the upcoming year.

What is the most important cause to you right now that you believe more people should be informed on?

There are a lot of causes that I care about and that are important, but right now I believe climate change is of the utmost urgency. If our planet is dying, then nothing else matters. We are in a climate crisis and our future is looking grim. I am so impressed by the youth-led movement that we have seen take action to demand solutions to the climate crisis. The fact that so many people still believe climate change is a hoax, or the many others who are apathetic to the issue because they do not yet feel the immediate consequences of climate change, shows that we need to focus on education. Keeping people more informed about the consequences of climate change and joining the fight against big corporations to stop polluting the environment is essential.

Speaking of causes that are important to you, who do you think are the biggest Agents of Change in your field right now and why?

In activism, one of my top heroes is Linda Sarsour. I admire her strength and courage and her will to fight, despite all the hate and despicable treatment she receives on a daily basis. She has proven to be heavily influential, and I am proud to say I know her personally. Another person I admire is Rafael Shimunov, who has perfected the use of media and social media to reach a wide audience. His live recordings of the Muslim ban protests garnered millions of views, and he regularly uses media to make commentary that goes viral on the internet. I admire his skill and ability to reach the people far and wide. In photography, the two photographers I admire most are JR and Ruddy Roye. JR is a French photographer who has used photography and street art to further social justice on a worldwide scale that I hope to achieve one day. Ruddy Roye is a genius at documenting communities of color and showing people who are often voiceless in our society. 

What movie, book or song inspired you this year, and why?

The movie The Farewell. I am an Asian American woman, so this film was so powerful for me. Growing up, I never saw many Asian Americans on the big screen, let alone Asian American women. I could really relate to the film and feel proud of my culture and heritage. This film was touching, moving, emotional, gripping, funny and real. It really inspired me to believe that I can make my dreams come true one day. 

What do you hope/plan to do in 2020?

I hope to keep putting my work out there, to keep the momentum going and find new projects that will excite me and motivate me to keep telling stories through my photography. 2020 is going to be a big year with the election, and there will be a lot of work to be done. I hope to be there during this momentous time in our history.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Published on Dec 10, 2019