Pictures Speak With A Thousand Voices: Cindy Trinh’s Social and Personal Art

Fisherman throws his net into the Thu Bon River, Vietnam. Photo by Cindy Trinh.

The photography of Cynthia “Cindy” Trinh defies rigid classification. It is art, yes, but also journalism, activism, community engagement, self-expression, and sometimes, a celebration. She is passionate about social justice and has photo-chronicled movements such as Occupy Wall Street and The Women’s March in Washington. Most recently, she documented the protests in memory of Eric Garner, the man who died in police custody in the infamous 2014 incident video-witnessed by the world on YouTube.

We Are Eric Garner: a demonstration in memory of Eric Garner. All photos by Cindy Trinh.

I asked Cindy when she realized that she was inspired by visuals and how she became interested in photography as a craft. She said “I was visually creative from a very young age and I drew a lot. My Mom really loved that I was so artistic, but she never thought it would become a serious thing. Even when I was older and was doing it seriously, she still thought of it as just a side interest. She didn’t consider it practical as a profession. She wanted me to be a doctor or pharmacist.” This reaction, on the part of her Vietnamese-born mother, was “very Asian” Cindy says with a hearty laugh. “But I was not sciency at all…. I told her that.”

At some point in her youth, photography had become Cindy’s medium of choice, though her family continued to disregard – or disapprove of – it as a career option. In college she got involved in art clubs and events related to her other passion: social justice. Her peers spotted her enormous talent as a photographer. They almost universally said she had “a great eye.” It was without a doubt what she loved doing. But still, the Asian daughter in her wanted to make her family happy. After college she decided to study law. It was the kind of profession her mother would be proud of.  Cindy thought maybe she could have the best of both worlds by practicing law in a creative field, to “protect artists” as a lawyer working to defend the interests of artists. She “dreamed of being a cool, hip, art lawyer.”

“Model Minority Reality” – A Documentary Photo Series. Photo by Cindy Trinh.

But she graduated right around the Great Recession, and struggled to make it as a lawyer. She was underemployed in low paying legal jobs that she didn’t enjoy. She “never felt like a real lawyer.” Then she thought “If I’m going to be broke, why be a broke lawyer? Why not a broke photographer?” That was after all, her calling. In fact, even during her time trying to be a lawyer, she always stayed engaged with her art. She was involved in “Activist New York” and had been documenting  activism, including movements like “Occupy.” It was supposed to be a side project, but this felt like her real line of work.  

Around 2015, Cindy created “Model Minority Reality” which is the project she credits with launching her career – or at least scaling it up significantly. It was a documentary photo series of Asian Americans that challenged the stereotype of the “model minority” – upwardly mobile professionals whose stories track the idealized narrative of the “American Dream.” Instead, Cindy highlights the real lives of Asian Americans working in precarious and low wage occupations: street vendors, restaurant workers, nail salon attendants. It is apt that this series should prove pivotal to the arc of Cindy’s oeuvre. Because it lives at the intersection of art, community, identity, and social justice awareness. These are the lifeblood of her subject matter preoccupations, as much as the craft of photography is the medium which gives them expression.

“Model Minority Reality” – A Documentary Photo Series. All photos by Cindy Trinh.

The series was highly acclaimed by critics and viewers and was featured in the news. Cindy was invited to exhibit her work in various venues and to participate in the annual conference of Asian Americans for Equality. In 2017, she documented and participated in The Women’s March in Washington and created the portrait series “Out of the Shadows” featuring survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence. An attorney for the Legal Aid society had seen Cindy’s museum exhibit and was moved to collaborate with her to bring the survivors’ stories out into the open, through Cindy’s lens and also through the survivors’ own voices. “These are stories of unspeakable violence, torture, and abuse” she said, “but they are also about hope and survival.” Cindy’s camera is adept at focusing on the beauty and heroism in that hope and survival.

Colors of Vietnam. All photos by Cindy Trinh.

More recently, Cindy traveled to Vietnam, exploring its life, culture, and beauty, not only with the eyes of an American/international artist and journalist, but also the daughter of Vietnamese expatriates. Her parents came to the United States as refugees at the end of the War in Vietnam. Cindy was born and raised in California and is an American, but her Vietnamese heritage – including the language – was always an important part of her identity, although as a child she sometimes felt it was “forced” on her by her parents. Until recently, she didn’t want to visit Vietnam because of the underlying emotional trauma of her family’s forced separation from their homeland. But she was urged on to do it, ultimately, by a powerful desire to connect with her roots in the land where her people come from. The resulting photographs were exhibited variously, including as “The Streets of Vietnam” and “The Colors of Vietnam” in experimental venues in the Little Italy/Chinatown area of Manhattan.

An upcoming solo exhibition of her work will showcase Chinatowns from around the world. It grew out of a renewed interest in her earlier focus on New York’s Chinatown for the Model Minority project. The Museum of Chinese in America invited her to speak and present her work. In the audience, unbeknownst to her, was the eminent Chinese American photographer Corky Lee, whose work documenting the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s are legendary. Lee had been a lifelong role model of Cindy’s. Meeting him and striking up a collegial chat with him was a completely unexpected honor. “It was amazing. And then he invited me to his show… where he introduced me to the chief curator, and she was interested in my work. When she saw the pictures, the Model Minority pictures and also my pictures of Chinatowns in different cities – I just took these pictures as a personal travel journal from various trips – she thought they would work well together and so, the collection is being re-branded, or restructured into a new concept: “No Boundaries” – it looks at Chinatowns in America and other parts of the world: and the story it tells about immigrants, about making a new life, about vibrancy of community, celebration, food, and culture.”

“No Boundaries” – a photo series on the Chinatowns around the world. All photos by Cindy Trinh.

“No Boundaries” will be on exhibit in New York Arts Center, from Sept 13 to Sept 30.

A current exhibit of her work is part of the “Activist New York” series on display at the Museum of the City of New York.  Cindy Trinh lives and works in New York City.

Street food in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Cindy Trinh.

Categories: Art

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