Meet the Photographer Behind Activists of New York

Cindy Trinh's photo blog, Activists of New York, covers more than its name might imply. Founded in the spirit of the photo blog Humans of New York (HONY), Activists of New York is not limited by its city or its seeming similarity to HONY. Activists of New York has more in common with photographer Jacob Riis and Occupy Wall Street than it does with HONY.

HONY has become so well known that when its founder, Brandon Stanton, publicly spoke out against Donald Trump, he was called in for an interview with Katie Couric, despite HONY's self-described apolitical nature (“I try my hardest not to be political,” Stanton wrote in his open letter to Trump). Trinh, on the other hand, founded Activists of New York specifically to be political, and to be fearless in representing the opinions of activists the media often ignores. (Full disclosure: Trinh is a friend of mine.) 

There's something about documenting lives, even in a random snapshot (as with HONY) or in a moment on the street demonstrating for an important cause (as with Activists of New York). As current trends attest, we want a place, conveyed in pictures, where we can get to know the people and the ideas outside of ourselves.

Trinh decided to leave behind a career in law to pursue photographing activism at a crucial political moment. It's testament to how important activist causes are, and how necessary it is to document them in an immediate, permanent way.

The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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Pictured above: Activists of New York photographer Cindy Trinh

Jenny Pierson: What is Activists of New York?

Cindy Trinh: It's a documentary photo project about activism and social justice movements in New York City. I've been documenting different protests, and events I get invited to by progressive organizations or non-profits and the other grassroots organizations. There is only so much you can cover, but I try to show up to a protest at least once a week, twice a week sometimes. It's very related to what's happening in the news. It's a documentation of what's happening in the streets of New York and also highlighting different organizations doing good work in the city that's progressive and toward social justice and change.

JP: Everyone's definition of good work and progressiveness is a little bit different these days. Your background is in law, correct?

CT: I'm still a lawyer, technically. I'm still barred in New York, but I'm not practicing anymore. I will always keep my registration as a lawyer, but in terms of what I want to do with my life now, I really found my true passion in photography. The popularity of the blog is proof that I'm offering something to the public that people care about, and I care a lot about it too. It fulfills me in a way that law never did. I'm so grateful for all the support and all of the organizations that have contacted me to do photography for them.

JP: If an organization reaches out to you, what qualifies them as an activist movement that you would get behind with your blog?

CT: One of the first major organizations that found me was Amnesty International.That was exactly one year ago. They contacted me to photograph their human rights conference.

That was my first big gig, a three-day conference in Brooklyn. Their organization is obviously one of the most reputable human rights organizations in the world. There are many different types of activists, but I obviously cover the more left-leaning progressive activism.

JP: What inspired you to start this photo blog?

CT: Well, I've been an activist. Before I started doing photography and I was still a lawyer, I was a legal observer for the National Lawyers Guild, a large non-profit legal organization that represents a lot of clients who don't have money, who don't have the means to get their own counsel. A lot of what National Lawyers Guild does is criminal defense law.

I was volunteering with them, and during the Occupy Movement back in 2011 and 2012, I did a lot of pro bono work for the NLG. I was legal observing in the protest, and I also represented clients in court. During my legal observing, our job was to watch what was happening, and we would write notes. Normally if someone got arrested, we would write down that person's name and information. During my time legal observing, even though I was wearing the green hat that indicates we are legal observers, and even though I was supposed to be just observing what's happening on the sidelines, I was still attacked by police. I was tackled. I was heckled at by officers. I was called so many different racist and sexist things by the officers.

It was a very tough time for the country during that year. There was a lot of tension, especially between officers and protesters. But having that happen to me and witnessing all the stuff that was going on, I almost felt like a part of me wanted to wear a different hat—literally. So I wanted to document what I was seeing in a different way, because I felt like the media was showing it in a way that wasn't true to what I saw when I was on the ground.

I got tackled by an officer, so for a while after Occupy, I had to take a break from it. A lot of activists say that before you can work toward a better protest cause, you also have to think about yourself and care about your personal safety. I was a bit shaken up by what the officers had done to me. I took some time and started to reevaluate. I decided I didn't want to do law anymore. Then during the year that Black Lives Matter really took hold of the country, that's when I decided I wanted to document what I was seeing.

JP: Do you want to talk a little bit about your personal experience?

CT: I'm an Asian-American female. My parents immigrated here from Vietnam after the Vietnam War. I was born and raised in Southern California. Ever since I was young, I've always had to deal with racism. Since I was a kid I've been called all sorts of different names.

JP: That feeling of otherness seems to be what took you from Occupy to Activists of New York.

CT: Yeah. Black Lives Matter was really the start of the blog, documenting the eruption of protest that happened after the Michael Brown shooting and the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown. The eruption of protests throughout the entire country.

And in New York ... There is a huge activist community here. People take to the streets in New York when they are upset about something. There was an eruption of protests during the height of Black Lives Matter. Every week there is still an action going on about Black Lives Matter. I think Black Lives Matter is here to stay. It's a civil rights movement. It's not just an isolated protest here and there. It's a national movement. There are Black Lives Matter arms in every single major city throughout the entire country.

I think Black Lives Matter in New York has been in the forefront of the movement because when Eric Garner died, it really affected New Yorkers. I think other cities and other parts of the country know Baltimore, Ferguson, San Francisco and Chicago. It all comes back to racism and discrimination and prejudice against a class of people. It's really a national issue.

JP: You can't really talk about racism and activism without talking about a certain GOP nominee. I would like to know what you think about Donald Trump and the right-wing activism movement. What have you observed and what do you think the media could do to propel a direction more in mind with progressive vision?

CT: I've covered several anti-Trump rallies. Trump is very, very dangerous. I feel like people have been saying that now for so long. My personal feeling, just watching him, is that he hates all minorities, and I'm a minority. My personal feeling toward him is that he is just a complete racist and complete fascist. I think what he is doing right now is he is exposing what has always existed in America—this deep-seated racism. For a long time people covered it up because they didn't want to be politically incorrect. But now that racism is just pouring out of people that have always been like this, but now they have Trump to look up to.

What I've seen in the streets is this extreme hatred. With the anti-Trump rallies I go to, there always is a small counter-protest of the pro-Trump people. They are legitimately scary. They are openly screaming extremely racist, extremely prejudicial comments. It really brings me fear for the safety of Muslims, Mexicans, Asians, women....

JP: The refugee crisis has incited a dangerous kind of fear. How should how the mainstream media combat xenophobia? Can images help move the needle?

CT: The image of the little boy who washed up on the beach—it took that image for people to start caring about the Syrian crisis. They are not terrorists. They are not ISIS. They are just trying to survive. They are fleeing from terror. That's what they are running away from. We have nothing to be afraid of. I spoke to them and I held their hand, I gave them food and I would look them in the eye. These are not people who are terrorists. It takes a photo for people to realize that.

That's why I do the work that I'm doing, creating images that will make people think about these issues and realize why they are important and realize that we are all human beings on this world and we all deserve a fair chance in life.

I think we the public deserves to know more. That's why I decided to start documenting activism and protests—because I feel like activists get a really bad reputation by the media where they are always portrayed as violent and crazy and angry and destructive in the streets, but that's not true at all. They are, most of the time, very peaceful.

The biggest example was what happened in Baltimore. Media only decides to come in when riots start happening, but where were they when all the peaceful marches were happening in Baltimore? For weeks there were peaceful marches in Baltimore and none of the media covered that. It just happens that there is a 26-year-old kid named Devin Allen is the one that got published by Times Magazine with that very famous photo now. The black-and-white photo with a protester running with a line of riot cops behind him. He is an amateur photographer just taking pictures. He lives in Baltimore. He started taking pictures of the protesters, but he showed them in a way that the media didn't show them. He was showing people coming together in the community, walking together and peacefully marching. Not just the riots. That's what I want to do. I don't want to show the violence. I like to show what's happening under the surface.

I feel like the media loves to portray activists as these very violent and crazy people in the streets destroying property, but that's not true. Really all violence is started because police officers start provoking and start pushing the protesters. I've seen it. I saw it in Occupy and I still see it today.

JP: What do you think social media's role is in terms of depicting activism?

CT: Social media has changed activism a lot, I think. I always think about the revolution in Egypt, how they used Twitter to all get together. Social media has given people the tools to communicate and to find better ways to come together. Activism has been around for decades, centuries even. Activism is not a new thing, but social media is a new tool for activists.

As long as there are causes to fight for, there will always be activism. Social media has just given the new generation now of activists these tools to come together. Now we are seeing protests that have 30,000 people. There is an anti-Trump rally, and already on Facebook it has 20,000 people who are interested in going. That's what social media has done for activism. It's given people the tools to organize these big rallies.

What I hope to do with my photos [is] to show people, yes, ISIS, terrorism and all these scary groups are to be feared and we have to deal with them, but we should not instill on ourselves so much hate to the point where we want to completely isolate ourselves from the rest of the world and take everyone out and treat people like they are second class. Because we are all humans at the end of the day, and we are all trying to survive.

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