The Interfaith Lessons I Learned While Captioning Photos
November 13, 2020
“A Black Muslim woman wearing a dark green hijab and a black button-down shirt smiles at the camera -”
I stared at the sentence for a few good seconds before selecting all and hitting backspace. This was my third attempt at writing a descriptive image caption for an Interfaith America article, and with each attempt, a new question popped into my mind: How much description is too much description? Did readers care about the color of the person’s outfit? What about readers with visual disabilities, is it ableist of me to assume the little details in the photo aren’t important to describe?
The one who pushed me to ask these important questions is disability rights activist and IFYC alumni David Gayes. Earlier in July, Gayes wrote a moving piece for our platform on the value of disabled lives in interfaith work, and later, he wrote an email encouraging us to think about the importance of accessible content.
“Please try to put image descriptions on your photos and captions for your video and audio presentations,” he wrote. “That way, your material is accessible to people who are blind and deaf/hard of hearing.”
I am fond of saying that one of the hardest things to do in the world is being honest with yourself. Gayes’ email was one such moment for me. As the writer and copy editor of Interfaith America, it is my responsibility to ensure our content is factual, grammatical, and representative of the diverse and inclusive dialogues that take place within and beyond IFYC. I felt a little ashamed that in my eight years of writing and editing experience, I had rarely paused to think whether my content was accessible to all my readers.
I took this as a learning moment to do better and turned to the internet for help. I came across some informative resources like the American Anthropological Association’s guidelines for creating image descriptions, which taught me the difference between alt text, image descriptions, and captions. The guide describes them as follows:
Alt-text: a brief textual explanation of an image, used in the coding of digital graphics online and in digital files
Image description: a detailed explanation of an image that provides textual access to visual content
Caption: a brief explanation that provides further information about an image
I also came across a resource published by Perkins School for the Blind, which talks about what features of an image to describe (colors, placement of an object, placement of text, etc.) and what features not to describe (details that are not the focus of the image, overly poetic details, etc.) when writing alt text or image descriptions for visually impaired readers.
Though these resources were helpful, I still found it challenging to describe some of the photos for Interfaith America, especially when they involved people of faith. How does one describe a person of faith in an image? Does creating accessible resources in the interfaith world look different?
To explore this further, I reached out to interfaith leaders and disability rights activists who create inclusive accessible spaces through their work.
Harmeet Kamboj, an interfaith activist, spiritual caregiver, and graduate student at the Union Theological Seminary in NYC, creates inclusive interfaith spaces by providing accessible image captioning through social media posts.
“I’ve been very committed with my interfaith work to dismantle the gatekeeping a lot of us have experienced in interfaith work in the U.S — this culture of very Christian, white, able-bodied, cis-male centric narratives,” says Kamboj. “A lot of people doing interfaith work now are open to inclusivity, and one way to do so is to make accessible content.”
Kamboj shares that their colleagues at the seminary introduced them to the importance of disability justice, as they were cultivating spaces to advocate for people of faith with disabilities, where their needs could be heard and accommodated. During one of the sessions, the ease of adding descriptive captions to photos struck Kamboj as a low bar for inclusivity in personal and professional posting.
“Making the effort to normalize descriptive photo captions and alternative texts in our online dialogues, interactions, and platforms, is important to us because nobody has the right to gatekeep the access to ideas, resources, or connections,” says Kamboj.
One of the challenges Kamboj faces in their work, like me, is finding the right language to describe photos of people of diverse faith.
“We’re working in a primarily Christian audience context in this country, and you need to think of that when you’re describing photos of people of faith who come from different places, have diverse religious garments, and symbolisms,” says Kamboj. “One of my best practices is to read up about the traditions of the people being represented in the image so you can be authentically descriptive.”
They add, “I don’t want to assume the pre-existing knowledge someone might have, so I lean towards learning from articles, tutorial videos from disability rights activists, or from my colleagues who work with disability rights. Wordsmithing the right vocabulary is an important part of the process.”
But what happens when you can’t discern the faith or racial identity of a person just by looking at the image or their name?
Gayes explains the best way is to ask the person in the photograph how they’d like to be described, whenever it’s possible to do so. In other cases, he says it’s better to leave the faith out of the caption, than making assumptions.
“Simply describe what you see in the photo or video as you’d describe it to a non-disabled person, make it as universally accessible and descriptive as possible, so it can be inclusive of people who come from different situations,” says Gayes. “Think of it like building a ramp for people with physical disabilities.”
What I learned from my conversations with interfaith leaders and from hours of scouring different media websites is this: there is no definitive best way to create an accessible resource. What’s important is understanding their real-life implications for people with disabilities and the intention to create an inclusive space where they feel acknowledged and seen.
Nobody drives this message home better perhaps than Peter Berg, who works as the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Great Lakes Center.
Berg was 26 years old when he lost his vision to diabetic retinopathy in 1995, a condition where the blood vessels in a retina are damaged by diabetes. After several long hospital visits and surgeries for a year, Berg became blind, and wasn’t provided any resources or tools to help him navigate his life as a suddenly disabled person. He felt truly lost.
“I knew right then that I wanted to do something to help people have a more accessible life,” says Berg. “I made several calls before I was directed to a vocational rehabilitation center where I trained to read Braille, use a screen reader, and learned to be independent.”
For the past 25 years, Berg has worked with various organizations to provide workplace training on the American Disability Act (ADA)— a comprehensive federal civil rights law passed in 1990 that prohibits discrimination based on disability— and Accessible Information Technology — tech that can be used by people with a wide range of abilities and disabilities.
“Independence is important to everyone, whether you’re disabled or not. I use apps to order groceries, I use apps to make calls and train thousands of people, I can travel, use public transport, and take care of my household because someone recognized my needs for accessibility,” says Berg.
On my journey to learn how to write that perfect photo description, I was reminded of a valuable lesson in interfaith. That interfaith work is about inclusivity, about opening doors and inviting people who are often left out of the conversation. People with disabilities have been disvalued at a societal level, barred from access to employment, resources, networks, and so the fight for disability justice by creating accessible resources, is an interfaith movement.
As David Gayes says to me over a Zoom call, “At the end of the day, what people like me want is access to an equal life. When people create accessible resources, be that through a photo caption or a captioned video, you are holding the door open for us and saying hey, your life matters to me.”
The next time I sat down to write a photo caption, I thought of Berg, Gayes, Kamboj, and all the other people who are trying to make a difference in people’s lives. I think of how my words are holding the door open right now, and I vow to keep it open.