When a Picture Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

From a very young age I was obsessed with pictures. My grandparents kept those old photo albums with the sticky film pages covering polaroids on their coffee tables, and every time I was at their house I’d flip through them so much that I’d pretty much memorized the order of each one. I loved looking at old photos of my parents, grandparents, siblings and myself as babies and beyond. I loved asking my parents or grandparents to tell me all about that day or that moment. It captivated me.

My obsession continued throughout my young adulthood as I became the designated photo journalist of my friend group. In high school and college I rarely missed documenting a single moment. (This was to a fault, for sure, as evidenced by one too many pictures I have of my friends and I in college posing with solo cups and half-empty bottles of Boone’s Farm. I am thankful every day that there was no Facebook or Instagram back then and that these photos are safely stored in my home and not online for all to see.) I look back at all of my photos now and often laugh, sometimes cry, but a lot of the time think, “Geez Alison, just enjoy the moment and stop taking so many damn pictures!” I’m sure many of my friends were thinking that at the time too. I know now that not every single moment needs to be captured, but at the same time I’ve always loved the fact that I have so many photos to share with others when I reminisce about the “old days”. I always imagined doing just that with my own children and grandchildren one day.

The irony of this, of course, is that I now have a son who is completely blind and cannot see photographs of my “old days” nor of his own. For him, pictures aren’t worth a thousand words like they are for those of us who are sighted. I assume he will have little to no interest in sitting with me as I scroll through my online photo albums the way I did so fervently by hand at my grandparent’s house. This has changed the way I think about pictures and picture taking.

Don’t get me wrong, my phone is still full of about 10,000 photos of my children like any other proud mom and I love showing them off, but, looking through them recently had me thinking a lot about how to create that same photo album experience for Finn. If I’ve learned anything from him, it’s that blindness doesn’t equal incapability, it just requires adaptability. So, I found a way to adapt. I recently started a digital journal specifically for Finn.  Since descriptions are essential to bringing any story to life for him, I’m using the power of words to document our memories as he grows up. The same way my grandmother would describe the moments we lived in those old photographs, I’m going to describe moments to Finn in a journal. I’m also including pictures to which I’m ascribing a detailed image description that will tell him who is in the picture, what they’re wearing, what they’re doing and when/why it was taken.* It will be his own version of a photo album or memory book that he can hopefully enjoy the way I did for years to come.

Another piece to this new photo dynamic is that Finn can’t pose for a photo the way we all are trained to do. Saying, “look at the camera” or “cheese” is lost on him. Any posed photos with Finn consistently show him with his head down toward the floor where it almost always falls naturally. And when I say, “Chin up, Buttercup!”, he lifts his head so high it lands equally as off-target. Posing for pictures has become a point of frustration, I’ll admit — not so much when Patrick or I are behind the camera since we’re now accustomed to it, but when others are. Regardless of whether the person taking the picture knows Finn is blind or not, inevitably they repeatedly call his name to try to get him to “look” at the camera. “Finn, Finn, up here! Look up!”, sometimes even with a snap of their fingers. It’s not that they’ve forgotten Finn is blind, many times this happens with our own family. It’s just what we’ve all naturally been trained to do — to pose and stare into a camera smiling, in order to get that “perfect” shot. The so-called perfect, posed image just isn’t going to happen right now, probably not for many families with unpredictable two year olds, but certainly not for us. I’m sure in time I’ll be able to teach Finn how to lift and turn his head in the right direction, but how much do I want to worry about this? Why is a posed photo so important?

Since my excitement around photos will likely always be a part of me, I’ve learned to not only accept, but embrace the imperfect photo. I welcome photos of Finn with his head down or way up since that’s exactly who he is. I now opt more for candid shots instead of posed ones in order to catch him with a real smile in a real moment. I’ve accepted that our annual holiday cards may not fit the traditional mold. I have to say I’m thankful for this — yet another lesson gained from my son. I needed to let go of capturing every moment or the perfect pose and just enjoy it instead. I needed to realize that what matters most about photos is the memory behind them and capturing reality, not some ideal result. As soon as I let that go, I was able to capture many perfectly imperfect shots to add to Finn’s journal. I can’t wait for him to listen to it one day!

A family of two adults, two children and a dog are shown in a bed of yellow, Fall leaves. From left to right: black medium sized dog with red collar and white strip on her chest; a father wearing a blue plaid shirt and gray pants holding his baby daughter (4 months old) wearing a white hooded sweater, jeans and white socks; mother is crouched down wearing a gold sweater, blondish brown hair, jeans and short tan boots is behind her 2-year old son who has blond hair, wearing a blue cable sweater, light denim jeans and holding a leaf. The boy's head is down. The mother, father and baby look at the dog and he looks back.
Our holiday card photo this year
The mother sits on a wooden swing holding her son in her lap as she touches his nose with one finger. His hand rests on her hand and his head is down.
A candid photo capturing a sweet moment
The mother and father look into the camera as the mother holds her daughter who looks to the side and the father holds his son who buries his head in his dad's chest.
Our attempt at a posed family photo
The same blonde haired little boy sits on a red tricycle wearing jeans and a gray sweatshirt with a dog on it. His head is lifting up to the sky.
“Chin up, Buttercup!”
The same little boy in the same sweatshirt is leaning forward laughing very hard
A picture-perfect candid shot of my funny guy


*I’ve learned that image descriptions in the blind community are of great importance — describing the details of a social media photo rather than only offering a simple caption allows a visually impaired viewer to get so much more out of the experience. Thankfully most sites now offer what is called alt text — this is essentially a worded description of any visual content for those who can’t see it (available for anyone using a screen reader device). Pretty cool right? Yes, I am thankful that social media didn’t exist back in my youth, but I’m beyond grateful that technology has come so far for Finn and others like him. One issue with alt text, though, is that computers can only be so accurate and descriptive on their own. This is where we, as online posters, need to help out. Facebook, Instagram, WordPress and countless other sites now all have alt text options that make it very easy to write your own descriptions of your photos (I added alt text to each of the photos above). They don’t need to be long — just specific and descriptive. The next time you post public, visual content online I encourage you to look for the alt text option before you post and add a quick description, or even add one beneath your caption. It’s a simple thing we can all do to make the online world more accessible and enjoyable for the blind community!  (For more information on how to write and post alt text or image descriptions, a quick Google search will offer tons of pointers and examples.) 

4 thoughts on “When a Picture Isn’t Worth a Thousand Words

  1. As always, you teach me how to “see” things in a new way. All of these lessons I take with me as I raise my own children and care for kids of all abilities through my work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this Alison! I face some similar challenges getting my autistic daughter to “pose” or take the perfect picture and being a photo lover myself it was hard to let go of. I love your insight and the positive way you adapt to life! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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