Photography and Civic Engagement

What Can’t be Unseen: Photography and Activism

BY Kymberly Pinder, Ph.D.

Photo of Kymberly Pinder, Ph.D.

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.


“What is the frequency of images? Some photos are not quiet at all.”
– Tina M. Campt, 2017 (Listening to Images, Durham: Duke University Press, 2017, 116)

Today we are surrounded by a cacophony of images. Anyone can view the recording of an array of documented injustices, from police shootings or choking someone to death to migrants drowning on their quests for better lives. As Elizabeth Alexander writes about whom she dubs the “the Trayvon Generation”,  

They watched these violations up close and on their cell phones, so many times over. They watched them in near-real time…. They watched them on the school bus. They watched them under the covers at night. They watched them often outside of the presence of adults who loved them and were charged with keeping them safe in body and soul. (The Trayvon Generation (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2022, 69)

Before countless loops of so many lives became so readily accessible in our very hands 24/7, the photograph galvanized public opinion and drove activists and legislators to action. Having been born in 1965, I know the photographs I encountered, in the daily newspaper on our doorstep and the magazines in our living room, shaped my life growing up during so many decades ruled by change. Many of these images were created before I was born but remain, to many generations, the iconic ‘memories’ of the civil rights movement. 

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

In April 1963, Charles Moore photographed Birmingham firemen using their hoses on young, Black protestors and police dogs tearing their clothes during a non-violent campaign against segregated businesses. These images capturing the depths of racism’s depravity appeared in Life magazine, swaying public opinion and getting the Civil Rights Act signed a year later. According to many, “[s]eldom, if ever, has a set of photographs had such an immediate impact on the course of history.” (Michael S. Durham, Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1991), 90.)

"These images capturing the depths of racism’s depravity appeared in Life magazine, swaying public opinion and getting the Civil Rights Act signed a year later."

Although I have vivid memories of the names of those American soldiers killed in Vietnam each night scrolling on the tv, the photograph of Ann Vecchio crying over the dead body of Jeffrey Miller is in all of the history books because it changed history. In 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at a rally against the U.S. invasion in Cambodia at Kent State. The photographer John Paul Filo was also a student there. Fourteen-year-old Vecchio’s grief expressed by her bent knee and outstretched arms reminded us of Neoclassical paintings, of Shakespeare. We were killing our youth here also. The nation could not turn away. 

© John Paul Filo, "14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of 20-year-old Kent State student Jeffrey Miller after being shot by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, 1970"

Another pivotal photograph in the anti-war movement was the “Napalm girl,” nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc who Nick Ut captured as she ran naked after U.S. planes dropped napalm onto her village. Ut’s poignant image received international exposure as he was working for AP at the time. The impact that seeing human suffering can have on other human beings can never be underestimated. From Emmett Till’s beaten and distorted face in his open casket published by Jet magazine in 1955 to Freddie Gray’s bandaged body on life support in a hospital bed across national news channels, such photographs have engraved generational trauma into the psyche and the politics of people of all races. These images were meant to be as loud as sirens calling a nation to action.

© Nick Ut, "Children fleeing an American napalm strike, 1958"

I will end on an image that, unfortunately, has returned as a timely one. It is the graphic black-and-white photograph of Gerri Santoro, who bled to death, prone, naked, and face down on the floor of a hotel room after a botched abortion. In 1973, Ms. magazine published the image with her tragic story about trying to escape poverty and an abusive husband. As various legislative bodies have compromised a woman’s right to control her own body, this image and the coat hanger resurface to symbolize what is at stake. As a young girl, when I first encountered this image in my older sister’s apartment, I knew it was about sex and death and being a woman. How exactly, I was not so sure, but it shook me, and it elicited a tsunami of empathy, fear, anger-- and conviction. Forty years later, I witnessed my own daughter face a mural-sized photograph of bloody fetal remains hung next to her soccer field. She was ten, sitting upright in her bright orange uniform casually, but forcefully, instructing her teammates to keep looking at the game. She was shielding them from the power of that photograph marring the clear blue sky behind them. What we see cannot be unseen, and therein lies the power of those arresting images that compel us to do better.