At The Body is Not An Apology, we are committed to accessibility for our community members with disabilities. As the Content Manager, one of the ways in which I help to create accessibility is to write image descriptions for photographs and other graphics included with our articles. Many blind and visually impaired folks use Screen Reader, which reads text but not graphics. So I translate the images into text in order to make the images accessible to people who cannot see them clearly.
I’d like your help with an issue I’ve encountered: It’s sometimes very difficult to discern the racial or gender identity of the subject of a photograph. Depending on time, place, and culture, the same person can be coded as a member of one race or another. Gender presentation changes across culture as well, and a person’s gender presentation might not match their gender identity, in any case. So I’m not always certain which descriptors are most accurate.
An example: I present as white and European, but most of my DNA is Middle Eastern, and there are dark-skinned people in my family. If I showed you a photo of my great-grandmother Gitel, you’d be hard pressed to tell how to describe her race.
[Here is an image description in which I try to address the problem by defaulting to skin color rather a racial designator: The black and white photograph shows a woman of 80 with dark skin, white hair, and dark glasses. She is wearing a polka-dot outfit and is sitting on a chair on a patio.]
My great-grandmother was not considered white in the country of her birth, and she came to this country as an adult, with her identity already formed; the passenger manifest lists her as “Jew” rather than a citizen of the country in which she lived. So I’m not sure how I’d refer to her racially for the purposes of identifying her. I have no idea whether she considered herself white. She might have, but I really don’t know. Calling herself a “person of color” wouldn’t have been in her vocabulary, because the term was not yet current. Her primary identity was Jewish, and she was racialized as a Jew, but that means very little to most people in America in terms of visual identifiers. In the Pale of Settlement in 1850, the term “Jew” would have been a clear visual descriptor. In 2015 in America, it isn’t.
When I write an image description, I feel relatively secure referring to a person who looks very light-skinned and European as white, and referring to a person who looks very dark-skinned and African as black. I realize that, in exceptional cases, I could be wrong, but I’m likely to be right most of the time. However, when it comes to identifying people who are neither very light-skinned nor very dark-skinned, there is a great deal of ambiguity. I rarely know whether to identify a non-black or non-white person as a person of color. I don’t know whether the person identifies in that way; I don’t know whether others identify the person in that way. Both are important in terms of racial identity, and yet, it’s impossible with a stock photo to tell.
Identifying gender is fraught with similar problems. I can substitute “masculine presenting person” for “man” and “female-presenting person” for “woman,” but I’m still working off shifting cultural definitions of what masculine and feminine are supposed to look like. Plus, a “masculine-presenting person” could be a trans woman who has not yet changed her gender presentation, and a “feminine-presenting person” could be a trans man who has not yet changed his gender presentation.
Finding any objective visual standard is impossible. At TBINAA, we’ve come up with a tentative solution — which is simply to describe skin color rather than race (when there is ambiguity), and to leave out gender altogether (unless we know how the person identifies).
I’m of two minds about this solution. On the one hand, it has the inarguable virtue of keeping us as far as humanly possible from assumption and inaccuracy. I like that. On the other hand, people’s racial and gender identities are important to them, as is seeing themselves reflected in the images we use. If we ignore gender (and, to a lesser extent, race) in our image descriptions, will that diminish the power of people seeing their own images in our work?
There is no perfect solution to these issues, but we would love to hear what you have to say. Your willingness to share your ideas will help us craft the best possible guidelines for our image descriptions.
We are not expecting unanimous agreement with any solution we might come up with, and we know that people will disagree with one another regarding best practices. As always, in these kinds of situations, we can only go forward by our own best lights and be consistent in our thinking.
Thank you in advance for your feedback.
[Headline image: The photograph shows a light-skinned person with brown hair in a pony tail and a white long-sleeved shirt. The person is looking at a computer screen and holding a pencil.]