Alt-Text & Ambiguity: A Poetic Approach to Image Description by Alex Haagaard and Liz Jackson


The experience of viewing a work of art is deeply personal. It can make you feel, make you think, make you remember. You may become transported by what the image depicts, or you may become engrossed in the minute details of how colour has been layered, blended or scraped away. A work of art mediates a kind of internal conversation between the artist and each person who experiences the work, and so the experience of viewing an artwork differs for everyone.

Image descriptions are one kind of access support that can make works of art more accessible to people who are blind, have low vision, or have other difficulties perceiving or processing visual information. Creating an effective artistic image description means finding a balance between providing enough information for a reader to understand the work of art and leaving enough ambiguity to allow the reader space for reflection and interpretation. This is the reason we favour a poetic approach to artistic image description.

Much like looking at a work of art, ambiguity is often an important part of reading a poem. Words and phrases have multiple meanings that shift according to the context of the reader, and which are influenced by the structure of the work itself. These shifting meanings can evoke sensory and emotional impressions, as well as philosophical, historical, and political ideas.

Last year, we had the opportunity to create image descriptions for North York Arts’ Northbound Exhibition Program of emerging artists in the GTA. Working directly with these talented artists to produce descriptions that reflected how they wanted audiences to experience their work was more challenging than we had initially anticipated, and gave us insights into the many factors that go into crafting an effective artistic image description.

Below, we have created image descriptions for three classic (and very different) works of Canadian art, and broken them down to give some rough guidelines for creating your own image descriptions.

Note: Image description is the general term for a textual translation of an image. The image and its description may be analog or digital, and the latter may be parsed by a screen reader or printed in large-text and braille. Alt-text is a way of providing digital image descriptions – it refers to a specific field in the HTML code of an image element on a web page. Whatever is entered into this field is not usually visible on the page itself, but it can be recognized and read aloud by screen readers.

An installation view of General Idea’s One Year of AZT and One Day of AZT, juxtaposed beside its image description, rendered in white text on a background that matches the deep blue stripes on the sculptural pills in the piece. The description reads, “Pill follows pill follows pill follows pill // Space and time marked out in an array, // sterile, precise, unaccommodating // of human uncertainty, setting // the parameters for survival. // The ritual surrounds, expands, // dominates, encapsulates. // No matter where you turn, there // it is a reminder // of what lies ahead.”

General Idea, One Year of AZT and One Day of AZT, 1991, installation view (courtesy: National Gallery of Canada)

General Idea created these two installations, which are typically displayed together, as a representation of the experience of taking azidothymidine (AZT), the first drug approved in the United States to treat HIV. This description emphasizes the mechanical sterility and repetition of the work, which in turn reflect the rigid structure that the AZT regimen imposed on the members of General Idea. The first line of the description provides necessary objective information that the objects we are looking at are pills and that there are many of them. Alex uses the structure of the first line to establish a sense of rhythmic monotony. Instead of directly describing how the pills line the walls of a narrow room, Alex alludes to their symbolic function in which they serve as a kind of time-keeping device, marking out the rest of one’s existence in precise increments, and as a restraint, defining the terms of that existence. They allude to the five oversized pills that comprise One Day of AZT in similarly metaphorical terms as symbols of how a medication regimen looms large within a consciousness, becoming something of which you are always at least a little bit aware, and which serves as a constant reminder of the precariousness of your existence.

Image descriptions that use figurative language can communicate elements and impressions of a visual artwork indirectly, which can help preserve a sense of curiosity, uncertainty, and exploration for readers.

Tom Thomson’s The West Wind, juxtaposed alongside its description, which is rendered in white text against a background the same deep, cool brown-green as the lichens that cover the rocks in the painting. The description reads, “A vivid memory of a summer day. // The wind across the lake stirs the water, // each small wave a gemmy mosaic, // cobalt, turquoise, olivine, garnet, // their facets tumbled as smooth // as the granite shore underfoot, // still echoing with the sun’s warmth. // The tree has been sculpted by the wind too, // wild, serpentine curves and billowing tufts of foliage, // silhouetted against billowing clouds // that punctuate the sunlight.”

Tom Thomson, The West Wind, 1916-17

Tom Thomson’s The West Wind is a more directly representational piece of art, which presents its own distinct challenges. It is a picture of a solitary tree rising from a pink granite shoreline, beyond which is a gently choppy lake and a summer sky filled with dramatic clouds. But describing the representational content doesn’t really tell us much about this image as a work of art. Having grown up in rural Ontario and spent a lot of time in Canadian Shield country, Alex experiences strong sensory memories evoked by Thomson’s painting. The contrast between the layered, almost delicate application of paint in the midground and the blocky silhouettes of the foreground suggest the feeling of motion and vibrancy that characterizes a windy summer day in this particular environment. By approaching the painting as a depiction of a remembered experience and drawing upon a multitude of sensory elements, Alex tried to create a description with room for subjective meaning-making instead of a straightforward accounting of its representational content.

Augmenting visual language with metaphors and analogies to other sensory experiences can help create more meaning for someone who doesn’t engage with the world primarily through sight. 

Christi Belcourt’s The Wisdom of the Universe, juxtaposed alongside its image description, rendered in white text on a background the same velvety black as that of the painting. The description reads, “Tiny, vivid dots resolve at a distance into a lush tapestry of flora and fauna; a beaded relic interpreted on canvas. Bioluminescent flowers burst from the midnight black background, emptiness that is not empty at all, but generative. A root system traces a symmetry around the center. What unfolds to one side is mirrored to the other; the constituents of this world are interconnected. The vibrance of the figures against the darkness carries another meaning for those with deep knowledge of the land; they are all ‘land animals [that] are listed as threatened, endangered or extinct.’”

Christi Belcourt, The Wisdom of the Universe, 2014

If your work includes culturally-significant themes or motifs, one question you may want to reflect on is how explicitly you wish to describe those for your audience. There is no one right answer to this question. Perhaps you envision the primary audience for your work as people who are fluent in those same cultural references, in which case you may wish to leave them more implicit. You may make a similar choice if you wish to let your viewers (and readers) draw their own conclusions. On the other hand, you may choose to be more explicit if there is a particular message you are seeking to communicate with your work, or if you are concerned about it being misinterpreted. In describing Christi Belcourt’s The Wisdom of the Universe, Liz did not have the opportunity to speak directly to the artist to ask her about this, so she drew from her artist statement to gain some understanding of how Belcourt was hoping audiences would respond to the piece, and what aspects she chose to emphasize explicitly in discussing her own work.

If you make use of culturally important themes, motifs, or references, reflect on how explicitly you want to address them. There is no right answer; it depends on who you consider your primary audience and what you want them to take from the experience of viewing your work.

We have consulted with art spaces in the past who expressed disappointment after the accessibility measures they had committed themselves to had gone unused. No matter how intentional an arts program is, it will always be connected to a systemic history of disabled exclusion that has only recently begun considering accessibility, albeit through rigid forms of compliance.

That is why we recommend pursuing alt-text as a trust-building measure. Whereas a work of art may remain static, its image description can change over time. When a description evolves in conversation with individuals who use it, it can begin to blur the lines of who is the creator and who is the user. Honoring this friction, and using it as an opportunity to reconsider who deserves credit for various modes of access can serve as a bridge, attracting audiences that put accessibility measures to use. Moreover, a record of a work’s evolving image description, citing those responsible for a particular change or shift, can similarly build trust between the artist and disabled audiences.

Crafting image descriptions is a process of trial and error and is most effective when it understands the inherent distrust that many disabled people have of exhibition spaces. It creates a sense of vulnerability for the author that we know all too well, because it wasn’t until someone who uses image description told us that our visual descriptions enhanced their experience of the exhibitions that we felt we were successful.

Alex Haagaard is a queer invalid artist, designer, and writer living in Kingston, Ontario. Their creative interests include portraying experiences of invalidity and invisibilized disability, crip humor as a method of subverting the ablenormative gaze, designing against power, and practicing biowitchcraft/anarchist biohacking/invalid medicine.
Liz Jackson is a disabled designer, writer, and critic living in Brooklyn, New York. Liz is currently analyzing power differentials that are embedded in corporate disability initiatives to understand how brand partnerships with large scale disability charities serve to undermine and neutralize the work of disabled employees and independent activists.
The Disabled List is an advocacy collective that engages with disability as a critical design practice. It examines how day-to-day practices of disability are both designerly and exploited by professional design culture.