Module 5: Image Workshop
5.9 Image Descriptions and Access
Image descriptions are vital for ensuring accessibility in image use. In this section you are invited to practice crafting an image description for the photographs you have edited. You might also try to write image descriptions for images found online, in magazines, or for images created by your peers.
What are some qualities of a good image description? At its core, an image description should describe what is happening in the image. However, we cannot stop here. Good image descriptions also capture the mood, feel, and purpose of the image. Let’s take the following image as an example.
Sample Image Description One: A stock photo of a woman working on her computer.
Sample Image Description Two: A stock photo of a young woman in business casual attire sitting in her wheelchair at a desk working on her computer. Her right hand, index finger outstretched, rests on the right side of her face, giving a feeling of deep concentration. The neutral colors and natural light in the photograph make her office space look modern and inviting.
These image descriptions are drastically different. We can think of at least three ways that these image descriptions differ from one another. The second image description offers context, tone/mood, and representations of disability that the first image description does not.
Let’s think about context, tone, and mood together. The first sample image description tells us that the subject of the photograph is working, but it does not tell us the context of where she is working. We can understand the significance of this absence if we consider our own experiences of work or perceptions of different working environments. An image of a worker in a large room filled with cubicles offers a different feeling and mood than an image depicting a worker in a room filled with bright, natural light and modern, fashionable decor. This context is then used to better understand the content it accompanies. For example, if someone was creating digital content about ways to improve worker morale, the context of the work environment captured in the second image description might create a feel for the type of work environment the creator finds to be beneficial.
Audiences who are interacting with these two image descriptions are also encountering disability in different ways. Those who are interacting with the photograph using the first image description do not receive any indication that the subject in the photograph is disabled or uses a wheelchair. This is significant as we know that so often able-bodiedness is understood as the default status or the ‘norm’.
Image Description Activity
Writing image descriptions is an art that takes practice. Now that you have engaged with sample image descriptions, choose a picture that you might use in your day-to-day digital life and test your image description writing skills. Once you have finished your image description, think and/or talk about the following questions:
- What was most challenging about this exercise?
- What was the most interesting or exciting?
- If you had more time, how would you have changed your image description?
- How did you create access in your narrative?
- How did the imagined context of the image impact your approach to writing your image description? Would your image description change if you used the image in a different context?
Once you have finished writing your image description, swap images with a peer and work to describe their image. Once you both have crafted image descriptions for both images, share your descriptions with your partner. You may use the following questions to guide your conversation:
- How are your image descriptions similar? How are they different?
- How did you decide what to focus on in your image descriptions?
- When writing your image descriptions, what elements of the photography stuck out as particularly important to describe? What elements seemed secondary or less important in your description? Did you and your partner(s) focus on describing different elements or feelings in describing the images?
- How do the differences between your image descriptions allude to the subjective nature of writing image descriptions?
- What can you take away from your partner(s) approach to writing image descriptions?
In her introduction to the book Disability Visibility (2020) Alice Wong writes:
This may feel true for every era, but I believe I am living in a time where disabled people are more visible than ever before. And yet while representation is exciting and important, it is not enough. I want and expect more. We all should expect more. We all deserve more. There must be depth, range, nuance to disability representation in media. This is the current challenge and opportunity for the publishing industry and popular culture at large. (xxi, emphasis in original)
As you wrap up your work with this module, consider the ways that your existing, new-found, and developing image creation skills not only represent disability, but provide this all important depth, range, and nuance in representation. We hope this chapter has added to your critical thinking toolkit, left you feeling prepared to critique images that limit understandings of disability, and inspired you to create images with diversity, access, and disability justice in mind.