Why do some blind people post undescribed photos?

Reflections by Áine Kelly-Costello

The other day, blind community member Danielle Montour let loose with a question I have often wondered about but never had the courage to ask.

Why, she asked, do those of you who are blind people who choose not to describe the photos you post make that choice?

To be clear, this wasn’t a question about the style of descriptions, when given, nor was it a suggestion that blind people need to post more photos. Rather, it was asking why, as blind people ourselves, some of our community post photos of their own with no descriptions, effectively locking everyone unable to see or visually process those photos out of those newsfeed posts.

Some common threads in the responses got me thinking. The reasoning tended to go like this: “Photos are a sighted people thing. I sometimes post photos for the benefit of sighted people who appreciate them. Other sighted people post photos and I don’t really care about them. And if I really wanted to know, I could use an app to get a bit more information about the photo anyway. It’s a sighted people‘s world, and I’ve got no time for photos and just don’t really care.”

I think pretty much everyone, blind people who agree with that reasoning included, are very well aware that photos hold, and thus are a means of sharing, experiences, memories, emotions and moods for every facet of life. Whether it’s weddings and graduations, political Memes or cute kittens, everyone already knows that photos span the gamut. Why, then, the recurrentnarrative about the separation between blind and sighted worlds?

I suspect it has something to do with what has been engrained subconsciously in our psyche as quote-unquote "normal" while scrolling newsfeeds. If we see the lone word "photo", or phrases like "photo no description available" or "image may contain: two people, outdoor, tree”, Photos become kind of like sponsored ads. We didn’t ask for them, and they’re in the way, and they're meaningless to us or sounds so boring that we quite genuinely don’t care.

And why stop at newsfeeds? In the real World, too often photos are something we have to endure, sit through and look fake-happy about for the benefit of sighted family members or friends or media. And when group conversations turn to the latest meme we have no clue about, and undescribed animated GIFs start flying back-and-forth, well, it’s just much easier and less embarrassing to disappear into the background than to derail the conversation by asking for access.

It’s not hard to see, Then, how amid layers of exclusion and probably insecurity, it feels like photos are best left to being a sighted people thing.

I want to add that there are a huge many other ways, beyond photos, through which we can and do express ourselves, and all of these means of expression are equally valid. So this post isn’t about suggesting that as blind people, we should be obliged to include photos in the repertoire of ways we express ourselves. I think we all make those decisions ourselves, and with our family and friends.

What I do want to suggest is that, when we do choose to share a photo, we should equally decide to push back on that subconscious conditioning that has told us that photos are not for us. If a photo is part of a post, we should see the entire post as being equally intelligible and accessible for blind and sighted people alike.

And here’s the thing, just because a photo is described, any one of us doesn’t personally have to choose to engage with that photo or description. But if the photo is not described, there’s no choice in that, for everyone who cannot see or visually process it.

At the end of the day, if we don't take that sometimes uncomfortable and tricky step of acquiring the info we need to describe the photos we post, we are complicit in perpetuating our own communities’ exclusion. So if we are posting photos, I think it's incumbent on us as blind folks to break that mould and help craft something better, one photo description at a time.

Edit to clarify that I am specifically talking about photos we are posting firsthand, as opposed to photos on posts others have written, here.

For blind folks asking about places to ask for descriptions, calling Aira or Be My Eyes are options, as are various community access Facebook groups such as: - People's Image Descriptions - Describe and Transcribe - Community access (captions, transcripts, image descriptions)