i dream of being possible

what matters for archival image description?

I think I tweeted a comment about this image yesterday, namely asking about the peculiarity of the image description omitting race. Here is the full image description:

Image of closeup of woman with short curly hair and man with a beard.

And my question yesterday was about the fact that race isn’t mentioned at all in this description.

Of course, the pressing question here is “should race be included in this image description?”. The annoyed part of me thinks that if the fact that one of the individuals is a woman and the other a man is relevant, then so is race. It matters that she appears to be an East Asian woman and that he might be a South Asian man. It matters.

I look at this image, captured in 1970, and I have so many questions. I’m so curious about these two Asian people getting their pictures taken for a hair styling thing. I’m curious because they don’t appear to be of the same ethnicity. I don’t understand what is happening in the image. Why is he looking at the camera but she isn’t? What if they are a couple (which would be too cute for words)? I’m also deeply impressed by her makeup, since doing eyeliner that on point for monolided eyes isn’t easy. Did she do her own? Did the salon?

I’ve seen a lot of these images from this particular fonds and with this subject matter (search me for why the Toronto Telegram was so interested in hairstyling). Most of them are of white people. This is one of the few I can remember from this same that has Asians.

I also recall a different set of images from the Toronto Telegram that were mistakenly labelled as being in ‘Africa’ because the people in the images were Black. Except… they were Indigenous people in New Guinea. I can’t remember what the image description said about them…

I see a lot of the descriptions in the Toronto Telegram fonds will mention the perceived gender of the people… but rarely their race.

How are things like this decided? I know I’m picking on my own institution, but it isn’t just my institution. I’m suddenly remembering a whole host of general archival stuff that operates on a similar principle: gender is important/noteworthy but race isn’t.

And I know that some will turn around and say “well, you can’t assume what race a person is” except that this also applies to gender. If all we have to look at are nameless people in a photograph with zero additional historical context, we also absolutely cannot assume we know what their gender is based on their presentation within a single image. Or even a series.

If we are going to aim for the most neutral descriptions possible, the image description above should be changed to:

Image of closeup person with short curly hair and person with beard.

Yeah, I know that the ‘beard’ part might cause a few people to assume things, but that is their problem.

And remember: this metadata is hugely important for access in the digital environment. Of all the metadata captured for this image, this is the most ‘creative’. The image description literally depends on the describer and then constructs how this image is found and perceived after it is ingested.

I don’t really have any answers, just a lot of questions. Because something here seems fishy to me. And I can see several different ways that the inclusion of race could benefit researchers and others wanting to interact with these collections. And since doing so would be as (un)problematic as including perceived gender, I’m not really sure why this informatio isn’t being captured.