Photographer Cindy Trinh on Bringing Their Work to the Streets

By Cindy Trinh and Shannon Lee
March 20, 2024

If you’ve been to a protest in NYC in the past decade, chances are, you’ve marched alongside photographer Cindy Trinh. Taking up the mantle of the late Corky Lee, Trinh is steadfast in their commitment to bringing greater visibility to marginalized voices, underscoring the importance of what it means to show up for one another.

Since 2014, Trinh has been documenting activism and social justice movements throughout NYC via their Instagram account, @activistnyc. At a time when activism is so easily dismissed and reduced to abstract ideas, Trinh’s portraits are a critical archive that restores the tangible humanity and individual personhood of each protester. Taken together, these images form a collective portrait of the wants, desires, and demands of the people.

Recently, Trinh has brought their photos back into the streets. Wheat pasted throughout the city are portraits taken from marches in solidarity with Palestine. “I wanted viewers to connect and feel like they are standing next to a person at a protest and that they aren’t alone in feeling like they want to do something,” they said.

Trinh spoke to The Amp’s editor, Shannon Lee, about their newest guerrilla public art project, activism, and the importance of solidarity.

Shannon Lee : You’re an incredibly prolific photographer with an enormous repertoire of protest photos. What compelled you to wheat paste your photographs of Palestine marches, specifically?

Cindy Trinh: I learned about Israel’s occupation of Palestine back when I was living in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn from 2011 to 2017. Living there, I was part of a group called Bay Ridge for Social Justice where I became friends with and organized with a number of Palestinian Americans.

I met Linda Sarsour many times while documenting the Black Lives Matter movement, where she was a prominent speaker. I learned from her about the plight of Palestinians. I learned a lot from the experiences of my neighbors, listening to their stories. I also learned from my Jewish comrades at Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and other anti-Zionist organizations—how this occupation is happening in their name.

Living in Bay Ridge, you feel the warmth of the Palestinian people. Despite all they’ve gone through, they persevere with so much joy. Before moving to New York, I didn’t really know many Palestinians; I grew up in California.

All the work that I do as a photographer has always been to highlight and give voice to marginalized folks, to document our histories and communities. I wanted to lend that voice to the Palestinians and Palestinian Americans.

“Whatever I show up for, it’s because I truly believe with every fiber of my being that it’s what’s right.”

Cindy Trinh: This is cliche but everything I do, I do because I feel it is right. Whatever I show up for, it’s because I truly believe with every fiber of my being that it’s what’s right. That this struggle and this fight is what we all need to show up for. Solidarity has always been the most important thing in my work. That’s why I show up for so many different causes. I’m hoping to create art that will inspire others to get involved.

During the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, in the beginning, I was one of the only Asian Americans going out to marches. I saw the same thing during the Palestine marches. As an Asian American, it was important to me to show our presence and our solidarity.

I think a lot of that changed during the Stop Asian Hate movement; I think a lot of folks were awakened to these systems of injustice. There are so many more Asian Americans showing up at these protests now. I love seeing that. That’s why it’s so important for me to document and wheat paste these images of Asian Americans specifically. We’ve gotta inspire more of our community to show up because this is an issue that affects all of us. The factors that contribute to violence against Asians are the same ones that affect the Arab and Muslim communities.

SL: What prompted this project?

CT: I’ve always wanted to turn my photos into wheat pasted stencil art. There were a few events that really inspired me. A few years ago, I was approached by an artist who wanted to use one of my images in an art piece she was making. She specified that it was an outdoor public exhibition in a park and that she would wheat paste the art piece.

Maybe a week before it was going to be installed, the artist contacted me saying that the project got killed. I was really bummed! I was really looking forward to it. But a little while after, a friend of mine noticed that this art piece she made with my photo was suddenly in an art gallery in SoHo. She didn’t give me any credit and we ended up being in a whole back-and-forth but it had me thinking, I should just wheat paste my own work!

It always felt overwhelming and daunting to me. But recently, a few months ago, I was talking to a few friends about different creative work. The idea of wheat pasting was brought up and I told them it had been a dream of mine for years. My friends volunteered to help me make it happen!

Courtesy of Cindy Trinh.

CT: With that encouragement, I took the leap. I learned how to stencil my photos and have been going out to wheat paste with different friends and comrades. You need a bit of a crew to wheat paste; you need someone to look out for you as you’re doing it.

There’s been so much street art that’s been happening in solidarity with Palestine. It felt like this was the moment; it’s now or never. For privacy reasons, I mostly selected images where faces are covered and not identifiable. The exception is when it’s an image of very public-facing figures. I wanted viewers to connect and feel like they are standing next to a person at a protest and that they aren’t alone in feeling like they want to do something.

There’s a beauty in the fact that I document people in the streets and am then putting those images back onto the streets. Everything is all about the streets for me.

My first wall was in Chinatown. As people saw them, more folks wanted to help out. I ended up going out multiple times a week with different people who wanted to come with me.

“There’s a beauty in the fact that I document people in the streets and am then putting those images back onto the streets.”

CT: Some people have asked if I’m afraid of getting caught and arrested. It’s a possibility! But it’s a risk all guerrilla artists and street artists take. I love street art because it’s free and open to the public. It’s the best when someone I don’t know takes pictures of the wheat paste and it finds its way back to me. For example, a few days ago, someone posted about my wheat pastes on their way to Yu & Me Books for a Palestine letter writing event. They tagged Yu & Me Books and Lucy, the owner, reposted it. That’s how I ended up seeing it.

As much as these works have been embraced by the community, I’ve also seen them get vandalized quite a bit. They’ve been written over, scratched out, covered up, and torn down…but all that’s typical. I was expecting that, especially given the subject matter. It just encourages me to keep putting them up.

My dream goal is to be able to do a whole wall with a hundred images from different protests, all collaged together. I’d call it, The 24-Hour Protest. This is inspired in part by the street artist JR. He had this one work at his show at the Brooklyn Museum some years back that was a giant, large format photograph that took over a whole wall of hundreds of people. I would love that kind of image but of protesters, all holding different signs, spanning all the different marches I’ve been to over the years.

SL: How did you select the images you ended up using?

CT: Part of it was technical. I’ve taken thousands of photos from Palestine marches, not just since October. I’ve been attending these rallies for years. Some of these photos work better as stencils than others. There’s also the anonymity aspect, making sure I choose images where people’s faces are covered.

I also wanted to select photos that would relate to specific neighborhoods. I chose a lot of photos of Asian Americans in solidarity with Palestine—like W.O.W.‘s banner that reads “From Chinatown to Palestine, No Genocide, No Displacement"—that I put up in Chinatown. In the Lower East Side and SoHo, I used an image of someone holding a sign that says, "While you’re shopping, bombs are dropping.”

When I’m wheat pasting, I go with a stack of images that I can use to assemble and collage together into these kind of mini protests.

SL: How did you get started in photography and activism?

CT: It started during Occupy Wall Street, back in 2011. I was a legal observer in the movement, helping to represent defendants. I was writing a lot more at the time; I had a blog. As a legal observer, we were equipped with cameras that would allow us to document any civil rights violations. So I ended up taking pictures.

I was mostly inspired to pursue photography because I was frustrated by how mainstream media portrays activists and protesters. What I saw when I was there were people peacefully protesting 99.9% of the time. But the way the media likes to portray protest movements is very negative. They tend to highlight any rioting or vandalism or looting to paint this picture of us as being violent delinquents with no jobs.

Personally, I was going through a really hard time. I couldn’t find a job; it was the recession. No one would hire me and I was really depressed. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I turned to photography as a way to channel all of my creative energy. It felt good! Growing up in a Vietnamese refugee household, I was never encouraged to pursue anything in the arts. I’m entirely self taught.

Courtesy of Cindy Trinh.

CT: In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed and the country erupted in protests, I started the ActivistNYC Instagram account to publish my protest photos. A few images went viral and I started getting commissioned to cover protests. I realized that this is what I was meant to do. It’s taken me 10 years to finally feel like I’m really getting somewhere with it; it’s a lot of ups and downs, sleepless nights, blood, sweat, and tears.

I still sometimes feel like I’m not good enough or like I won’t be able to make enough money but at the end of the day, I’m so much happier with my life now. I had dropped everything else to pursue this passion of mine because it’s what I want.

I’ve seen a lot of articles comparing what’s happening in Palestine today with Vietnam. While there are many differences, the root is the same. It comes from the same western imperialism. The US is the war machine of the world.

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