Photography and Civic Engagement

Images of Traumatic Histories



Kymberly Pinder, Ph.D., is a Scholar, Curator and is currently the Dean at the Yale School of Art, Yale University. She was a professor and administrator for sixteen years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before moving to New Mexico where she was dean of the College of Fine Arts at UNM from 2012 until 2019, when she became provost of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. As a community arts scholar, Pinder has been committed to community engagement and interdisciplinary initiatives. Her efforts at the UNM Art Museum at UNM resulted in an annual “all-arts day” titled ArtUnexpected, and as interim museum director, she began the multi-city initiative, PhotoSummer to promote the programming around photography and facilitated this event across NM.

Before and during her teaching career, she worked in the education and curatorial departments in museums and galleries, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters in New York, and The Art Institute of Chicago. Pinder has been published in the Art Journal, Art Bulletin, and Third Text. She has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon, Ford, and Henry Luce Foundations, among others.


In your essay, you wrote about indelible images from the past that are also traumatizing. For your lecture, how did you choose the images you’ll be showing and talking about? 

I had agreed to do the essay and lecture over two years ago. The past two years were a long time for me. One of the things that the COVID pandemic gave me was clarity about what I can tolerate and what I can’t. I found myself having to write about images I didn’t want to look at. 

I had a phenomenal conversation with 15 MFA students about this. I had volunteered to teach one of the installments of a required class called Critical Practice. My section was on public art. The students are in my class because they want to deal publicly with issues around colonialism, or misogyny or racism or anti-LGBTQ violence. For their final assignment, they had to pick a site in New Haven, Connecticut, and create a proposal for a public art piece on that site. We were reading a lot about New Haven history. The Amistad trial happened here, and lots of different types of trauma to Indigenous people and various people of color. We were having a discussion about how you make work as an artist about these issues and not keep re-inscribing the trauma. I told them that I have to make this presentation, and said: I don't know what I can do with these images now. Maybe I'll just do a slideshow where you can't see the images. They all went crazy for that idea and said: Oh my God, you have to do that. 

I made the PowerPoint where parts of the images are blocked out, but you still can recognize the images. You don't have to see the whole image, your memory fills in the rest because we are so familiar with these terrible pictures. So it addresses how common the vocabulary of those traumatizing images has become. 

"You don't have to see the whole image, your memory fills in the rest because we are so familiar with these terrible pictures."

The first image shows the installation of The Lynching Tree by Steve McQueen at the Yale Center for British Art. We went as a class to see it, and afterwards the curator asked how we felt about the way it was displayed, with a place for people to leave comments. One student told the curator: You should have a private place with tissues. She explained how upsetting it was to see this work in public, in front of strangers, because the emotions it elicits are personal.

 I discuss this as it relates to trauma and the power of images. 

© Steve McQueen, "Lynching Tree", 2013, Courtesy of Yale Center for British Art. Image from the Steve McQueen Schaulager Exhibition in 2013

On the subject of traumatic images, some photo editors are rethinking the news value of showing certain images, like more images of suffering Black bodies. Some images might simply make readers look away, while re-awakening trauma in readers who have lived experience of police brutality or anti-Black violence.

When you think of a news outlet, it’s putting out images where they are now unfettered and unleashed. I was just rereading W.J.T. Mitchell’s book, Cloning Terror, on the images from Abu Ghraib. I love how he describes how, due to social media, images are now like a virus. You can’t control them, you can’t quarantine them. 

I’m also showing work by photographers who put themselves at risk or were injured, to remember that there were people on the other side of the images. With my students, we talked about the trauma re-inscribed onto the artists. How do they protect themselves while making the work they feel ethically compelled to make? 

This relates to something that I brought from Massachusetts College of Art and Design to Yale. We offer a trauma-informed critique and classroom workshop for our students and faculty. It’s an amazing program developed by counselors to help art students and faculty better understand trauma and to have the tools to address it when students’ art is about trauma. I think it’s ethically responsible for an educational institution that is teaching students how to craft art and images, and also to teach them how to take care of themselves as they make work that tears them apart. 

"I think it’s ethically responsible for an educational institution that is teaching students how to craft art and images, and also to teach them how to take care of themselves as they make work that tears them apart."

The question about the value of one more image of Black suffering resonates with me. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, the media was telling White people: Reach out to Black friends and ask them about their experiences of racism. I was incredulous. You shouldn’t have to hear one more account of racism. What is the goal of hearing more and more? What number makes you understand that it’s pervasive, it’s systemic? The same is true of images: Why do you have to keep seeing them? To believe that they’re true? 

That’s a question: Why does it take these images to make people care? Why do we have to see a nine-year-old girl burning with napalm to take action?

"Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), 2017", from the series Night Come Tenderly, Black © Dawoud Bey

For your lecture, you’ll be showing images by artists like Dawoud Bey and Dread Scott who reimagine historic events or sites of pain. What inspires them to look back?

I think there are different motivations for different artists. The Dread Scott image documented a performance in which he was fire-hosed. Two years ago, he orchestrated the re-enactment of a slave revolt using the techniques of Civil War re-enactments. People just walking by were suddenly involved in a slave rebellion. I think for him it’s about bringing history to life for unsuspecting audiences. I like the phrase, “You can’t get over what isn’t over.” We are all living in the consequences of colonialism. It isn’t over.

The Dawoud Bey image comes from his exhibition about sites of the Underground Railroad, titled "Night Come Tenderly, Black". As with Steve McQueen’s Lynching Tree, the work is about a Black person sitting in a place where they might once have been killed. I think for Dawoud, there’s an acknowledgment of the privilege of being able to make art about history instead of living in that history. 

© Charles Moore, "Alabama Fire Department Aims High-Pressure Water Hoses at Civil Rights Demonstrators, Birmingham Protests, 1963"

Much of your art historical scholarship has involved public art. You’ve said “reciprocity” is an essential quality of community-based projects. Can you explain what you mean by “reciprocity”? It sounds like quality photographers hoping to engage or impact a community might strive for. 

Anyone pulling together a community-based art project has to listen to different constituents—the people commissioning the work, the community members who will be living with the work. What are the concerns or the messages all these people want to communicate? The artist comes up with a collaborative process unique for each project. Public artists think of the big picture, and thrive on the give and take. I admire that. That’s reciprocity. 

When the great Chicago muralist William Walker died, he left a box of cassette tapes. He had recorded the conversations he had while making his murals. The ones I listened to included someone asking him to explain the glaze he was using, and a conversation about a political rally that was going to be happening in Daley Plaza. That brought home to me what it meant to him to make public art: It wasn’t just the product, it was the engagement with the community. I like telling that story to artists who want to make public art and asking them: What’s the community engagement part of your art?


• Berger, Martin A. Seeing Through Race: A Reinterpretation of Civil Rights Photography. University of California Press. 2011.
• Berger, Martin A. Freedom Now! Forgotten Photographs of the Civil Rights Struggle. University of California Press. 2022.
• Buell, Hal, & Ut, Nick. (2021). From Hell to Hollywood: The Incredible Journey of Ap Photographer Nick Ut. The Associated Press.
• Moore, Charles, & Durham, Michael S. (1991). Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. Stewart, Tabori & Chang.
• Sharpe, Christina. (2016). In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.

This interview was conducted by Holly Stuart Hughes, Independent Editor, Writer & Grant Consultant, Former Editor-in-Chief, PDN, in February 2023.