Activism from Behind the Lens

In a time when people must stand together against hate, this photographer takes to the streets.

A photograph from the Yemeni bodega strike in New York taken by Trinh.

Documentation is crucial to history. Without it words spoken and people gathered to promote change are forgotten. In today’s political climate, this remains as true as ever. Cindy Trinh, the photojournalist who started the project “Activist NYC” realizes this importance. In photographs that highlight individualism and diversity in a sea of color and and protest, Trinh describes her work as, “a documentary photo project about activism, protests, and social justice movements in New York City,” and it is just that.

Trinh, an Asian-American woman in her low thirties, with green hair and black-rimmed glasses, remarks on New York City’s activist culture. “New York has action,” she says, “and people come out.” The Brooklyn resident’s photos have gained praise from overseas as well, with people who want to be part of this activism. Trinh knows that people want to be involved in what is going on at protests, so her goal is for “Activist NYC” to be a resource for people who aren’t able to attend protests to see what is happening on the streets.

Trinh says that her project started getting noticed after the protests about the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in the Fall of 2014, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Some of Trinh’s photos went viral on the internet, and she started gaining momentum. Now with Trump there has been another increase, and Trinh expects she will have a lot more involvement in the blog for these next four years.

Originally trained in law, Trinh turned to photography when she couldn’t make a living as a young lawyer during the recession. “Eventually I told myself that if I’m going to be a starving working professional I might as well be a starving photographer,” Trinh said. Photography has been a passion of Trinh’s since college, and this looked like a good way to connect her interests with her law training.

In 2011, Trinh got heavily involved in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and did some pro-bono work for those accused of traffic obstructions infractions and similar charges. During this time, she was tackled by a police officer, and she became very aware of the negativity in this protest environment. The great work of the protesters was being shown in a negative light. So, away from the mainstream media, Trinh started her own passion project, which was her photography of protests.

Trinh wanted to show the positive side of protesting and activism, and how it can be (and often is) peaceful. She also wanted to communicate a sense of hope, as well as break the mold of how the media portrays activists, which is often as destructive and violent. In terms of subjects, Trinh began to look for creative signs and people who show heightened emotion, aiming for a raw, real, and “purely documentary style” photos. Her goal was and is to find people who encapsulate the message of the gathering.

When I asked Trinh what is most difficult about her job she was quick to answer. Unlike many press photographers that tend to shoot from outside of a crowd and have a distant perspective, she wants to be inside the crowd, or what she calls the “belly of the beast”, which is far more hectic. The constantly moving crowd and sheer energy can make it hard to get a shot. Trinh’s work is very physical; she finds herself running around, squatting, and even climbing, to get a photo.

This year has been much busier than most. Trinh recently covered the Women’s March in D.C. “It was so packed,” Trinh said, “which was great, but different.” Since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, many people have come out to protest sexism and racism. What irritates Trinh though is the fact that “people of color have been saying this forever… and it took Donald Trump winning the election for other people to realize that racism and sexism exist.” “These are two intangible things,” she says, “you cannot see or touch them… but you can experience them.” What’s different now is that these forms of discrimination have a physical evil figure; Trump embodies these, and is what causes people to come out.

Despite her more liberal views, Trinh tries to keep the captions on her site as objective as possible. She will state the location and time of the event, as well as a summary of what is happening and why the people are there. Her one recent exception has been her commentary on the Bodega strike in New York City, and the emotions she felt while there.

This strike, which occurred on February 2, 2017, consisted of the Yemeni owners of 1,000 bodegas closing their shops as a reaction against Trump’s “Muslim Ban”.

“This was not a common protest,” Trinh said. People were “waving American flags, smiling, chanting, holding hands, sitting on shoulders, kissing one another.” “They were so nice,” Trinh recalls, “unlike normal protests were I’m crouching and dodging, these people respected me as the photographer and parted to let me through… there was a strong sense of solidarity.” One of the most “captivating” moments of the protest was watching the crowd go from roaring to silent in a mere moment at about 5:00pm when it was time for the evening prayer.

Trinh’s initial goal was to help people, and through her photography she has a wider reach. In terms of the future, Trinh is currently working on a portrait photo project about women who have survived trafficking, which will be displayed in about a year. Trinh also said she would love to document the lawyers who are currently working long hours at JFK due to Trump’s Muslim Ban. At the end of the day, Trinh is ambitious, but cannot cover everything. This is not her full-time job, and the only money she makes is from freelance work, not this. “We need mass civil disobedience,” Trinh says, “but in a peaceful way.”

Where you can find her work: