Lawyer-Turned-Photographer Cindy Trinh on Documenting New York City Protests
For the better part of the past decade, Cindy Trinh has been documenting social justice movements around New York City with her ongoing Activist NYC project. Here, Trinh, a photographer with a background in law, shares her observations on the current Black Lives Matter protests, while reflecting on numerous other social and environmental justice issues we face today, and why protesting is intrinsic to American life.
When did you start photographing protests? What prompted you to start Activist NYC?
I’ve been documenting protests since Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, though I was working with the National Lawyers Guild at the time, and more in the role of a legal observer. That was when it clicked for me. I would see cops tackling, beating, pepper-spraying people for no reason. There would be blood everywhere. I was even tackled by a police officer. He saw me taking pictures and tackled me to the ground, and it was really scary, because he had his elbow into my spine. After a good five to ten seconds of being restrained on the ground, something happened to distract the police officer, and he just as suddenly got up and left to go chase someone else.
I started my current project under the name @activistnyc in 2014. That was when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and all the different solidarity protests were erupting around the country. I was a lawyer, but quit law, and had decided that I wanted to pursue photography full-time. I just hated how mainstream media portrayed the movement, and started really thinking about what I wanted to do with my life and how I could contribute to something that I felt I could be proud of.
Media narratives tend to focus on the negatives—for the headlines and the clicks—so they will disproportionately show the violence or the rioting. Most of the time, the people out protesting on the streets are peaceful. They’re diverse, and they’re educated. Most of the time, it’s the cops that introduce violence to the protests. It all made me want to pick up a camera and show what I see when I go to protests around the city, to change the narrative about what it means to be a protester or an activist in the streets, exercising your First Amendment rights. I’ve been continuing it ever since—it’s been a long six years.
The current Black Lives Matters protests are making history as one of the largest, sustained civil rights movements in the country, active in all fifty states and abroad in nineteen countries. What’s been your experience at these protests in New York, from 2014 to now?
What I see now is people that have never done this before—they’re out there now. People who have never been involved in activism or protest, or have never posted anything about it before, are now doing it. They’re finding the drive to finally get themselves involved, which is really important because there is strength in numbers, and we’re seeing huge actions finally being taken in cities like Minneapolis and L.A., where they’re taking steps to defund police forces, and now in New York, the conversation is also around defunding and passing laws to address police immunity. This is definitely, by far, the largest and longest-running movement I’ve ever seen. I’ve been to a lot of different big marches, the biggest one being the Millions March, which drew out tens of thousands of people. But the last two weeks have been as big as the Millions March, like, every single day.
The organizing that has been happening in these weeks is beyond anything I have ever seen in the past, and this has really been an accumulation of years of work. It’s beautiful to see this strong outpouring of care and community. At protests, I’m seeing people handing out water, masks, hand sanitizer, snacks. Everyone is really looking out for each other, and it’s the greatest sign of solidarity.
In what ways do you feel social media has changed photography and journalism?
The invention of social media has really helped further the movement, in my opinion, because it’s allowed us to see and expose things that have always been happening—and now, we have the means to get it out there. It is important to show the police brutality, exposing what they have been doing to black, brown, and indigenous communities in our country for many, many years.
Social media has allowed everyday citizens like myself engaged in citizen journalism to show the perspective of an everyday person, without the biases of mainstream media. I know a lot of other photographers and citizen journalists [who are] doing their own projects, with all different perspectives. I think it’s important to have a variety of voices that aren’t largely represented in mainstream media. We need diversity in our storytelling.
The pervasiveness of systemic racism compounds the dangers of public health, as we’ve seen in the ways black, indigenous, and POC communities have been harder hit by Covid-19, as well as climate change and environmental issues. What other movements have you been tracking?
Climate change is definitely one of the largest issues I’ve seen come out of New York, especially in the last couple of years, witnessing the way Hurricane Sandy affected [the city], the consequences of rising temperatures and sea levels on our planet, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent push for the Green New Deal. It’s another issue that has been a really, really big focus, and if you think about the cycles of oppression that keep communities of color in constant poverty and struggle, and have not allowed them the equal opportunities to thrive, the dangers of climate change and natural disasters absolutely have to do with it. Because, if and when we are to experience another natural disaster, it’s the poor and the vulnerable that will be affected the most.
There are so many issues and communities that New York activists care about. Since Donald Trump took office, I’ve documented a growing number of protests held by the Muslim community, in response to his travel bans, and they’ve been dealing with this kind of extreme racism since 9/11, so this is an ongoing fight for them, as well. And the Asian American community has seen how, during the Covid-19 pandemic, in the snap of a finger, we can be scapegoated and seen as an enemy, or [as] a virus or threat to our own country.
In the larger arc of history, what does protesting and physically showing up mean for you and for American democracy?
Protests symbolize change. Protesting is what shapes our country, and is at the foundation of being American. It puts pressure on our government and on our political leaders to enact change. Every major change that we’ve had in our country has always resulted from people taking to the streets and demanding to be heard. And that’s what we’re seeing now—one of the largest movements in history.
If you’re physically able to and in good health, I think showing up says a lot about how much you’re willing to put yourself on the line, and walk into an uncomfortable situation in order to achieve what we all want: equality, justice, and accountability. Most of the time, protesting is low-risk and peaceful, but we’ve seen what the cops can do to protests. Showing up means that you care about something bigger than yourself. And when you’re out there, the energy is so strong and infectious, you really feel that you’re taking part in this history, right now, that you’re a part of something that has the power to affect change for years to come.