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Author Photos and Alt Text (and Lack Thereof)

“Alternative (Alt) Text is meant to convey the “why” of the image as it relates to the content of a document or webpage. It is read aloud to users by screen reader software, and it is indexed by search engines. It also displays on the page if the image fails to load…”

— Harvard University Digital Accessibility Guide

Context: Write helpful Alt Text to describe images

I require all visual artists to include Alt Text to accompany their visual artwork that we publish. In most cases, I use the artist’s Alt Text verbatim, but I sometimes edit for punctuation and clarity. In rare cases, I will compose Alt Text for published imagery when it wasn’t provided. But when I do those, I restrict myself to the most rudimentary information.

Ideally, Alt Text for artwork will provide some clues to the mood, meaning, or intention of the image. I hope everyone will agree that it’s not the role of the publisher to make those determinations for a piece of art. This is why I insist that contributors include their own Alt Text for artwork.

I do not require Alt Text for author photos, but I do request it from everyone. (This is also my practice regarding pronouns.) When an author fails to provide Alt Text for their headshot, I simply will use their name in its place. And while I think it’s a good practice to include Alt Text (and pronouns), I don’t feel comfortable imposing my preferences on others.

For a brief time, I took it upon myself to add Alt Text to author headshots when it wasn’t provided. But every time, I felt uncomfortable deciding what to include. What are the most important characteristics of a headshot? Background? Lighting? Attire? Hair style? Age? Skin color? Ethnicity? I hope you can see why this would be a questionable thing to do.

I would never presume to assign pronouns to someone who is not me. Nor would I insist that anyone is obligated to share their pronouns with me, or anyone else. It feels right that these are personal decisions, so I don’t make any impositions regarding pronouns. It also feels right to take this same approach to author photos. After all, I also allow people to forego the inclusion of an author photo.

I hope our vision-impaired readers understand, and I am certainly open to criticism or alternative perspectives.

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