Should computer scientists keep the Lena picture?

There is a very famous picture commonly used in image processing research and classes, that of Lena Söderberg. Söderberg posed nude for the Playboy magazine in the 1970s. A cropped version of the picture has been used ever since. The picture being used is “safe for work”, but if you Google long enough, you will find the complete version.

I worked for years on the picture, being totally ignorant of the origin story. It is many years later that I learned the story. (I am old enough that I did my Ph.D. in the pre-Google days).

To many women, the use of the Lena picture is offending. This puts me in the awkward position of choosing not to include the picture I refer to in my post. It is available online.

What should we do?

Richard Matthews from the University of Adelaide thinks that we should keep using the picture:

Should the field in general stop using the Lena image? My personal view is: no. The use of the Lena test image is a quirk of the industry that should be celebrated. That being said, it should be used alongside others equally.

I disagree with Matthews.

When I wrote my Ph.D. thesis, I think I was ignorant of the backstory behind Lena, and I used it abundantly in my tests because it is a very rich picture, with lots of different textures. Still, when I wrote my Ph.D. thesis, instead of going with Lena, I used a painting of some famous mathematician because I thought that the theme was more interesting.
There are good alternatives such as the Kodak image set that do not contain any objectionable image.

“Getting along” is how we prosper. There are times when offending people is warranted. But I don’t think that the offense caused by Lena serves a useful purpose.

We cannot remove the Lena picture from the articles and textbooks, and we should not seek to make the picture disappear… but in the interest of “getting along” we should use alternative pictures.

Getting along is a statistical concept. You can never please everyone or even most people. If you remove anything that could offend someone, somewhere, you will be forced to hide in a very dark hole. In the case of the Lena image, in my view, enough reasonable people are offended that it is worth taking it into consideration.

Of course, you can never win cleanly. It is entirely possible that other people would be offended at the thought that we might remove the picture from consideration. Hence, I use the term “statistical”. It is not black and white. Wrong and right.

I will conclude with a personal story. In the lecture notes of one of my courses, there is a picture of a prostitute by the side of the road. If you are not paying attention to the content of the course, it seems totally out of place and maybe sexist. At one point, we were paying a revisor who went through my notes. When she got to this picture, I think she was ready to throw her hands up and call the cops. Except that the cover in question is that of a feminist magazine who was one of the first to benefit from digital archiving. It was, historically, a very important feminist (I stress feminist) magazine. That particular issue had a piece on prostitution. I used this cover because that’s the cover the people who completed the digital conversion promoted; in the original announcement, there were famous feminists being photographed right by the cover in question. I could have removed the cover in question from my notes in the interest of “getting along”, but one should draw a line somewhere. My point is that we should not bend so far as to enter a 1984-like Orwellian world. We should not go so far as to forbid the Lena picture, or to clean the world of anything that might offend. Still, I would probably have chosen a different cover had I thought it could offend (needlessly).

Further reading: Should we discourage the use of Lenna?

20 thoughts on “Should computer scientists keep the Lena picture?”

  1. “Getting along is a statistical concept.”

    Ah! I see, you are truly “old school” and you likely missed quite a few recent memos, I’ll summarize them for you:

    In newthought there is no bound for GETTING ALONG you have to “get along” on everything and forever.

    1. Is this the new “Normal”? statistically speaking. I advocate the opposite route. All future test images should avoid leaving out the original content and use the full Lena image.

  2. > To many women, the use of the Lena picture is offending.

    How many is “many”? You’ll always find a non-zero number of people offended by something, but is this an actually significant number of people?

  3. I think we should stop whining and getting offended by anything and everything. This is getting ridiculous. I miss the old days, before being ‘PC’ was a thing, and when we didn’t have to think about if something we find completely normal offends some minority.

    1. Bas, that’s very easy position to take when you’re in a position of power. In fact, it’s a position that says “I wish I could remain in this privileged spot and not ever be challenged in it.” But you should probably be aware that that’s exactly what you’re saying. I don’t think we have the right to do so — in fact, being in a position of power (think about it — you’re a tech lead, that’s a management position, and the concepts should be familiar), we have an obligation to be the ones who are *more* concerned with preserving the rights of the minority. Because we do have the power.

      Power without morality … well, you can look at the current state of politics in the US. Let’s not be that person. 🙂

    2. We have always been concerned about offending. You don’t go to the local church and yell “people who believe in God are stupid”. I mean… you might… if you have a point to make, but not just for fun. That’d be a stupid trick to pull. Why is it stupid? Because offending people has a cost. You have to balance this cost with what you expect to gain.

      Ok. So what do we gain by using Lena?

      Nothing that I can see. What is the damn point?

      1. You don’t go to the local church and yell “people who believe in God are stupid”

        Indeed, you don’t. Actually, what you do is popping out with AK-47 and kill them all. It’s 2017, not a Voltaire’s book.

      2. The damn point is that a lot of the “offended” people are not genuinely offended, they are just trying to score points in a political struggle, give them an inch they will claim for a mile.
        Of course, you may not be interested or feel involved in either side of this struggle but we are exactly in the same situation as in the famous Niemöller quote, dark days ahead if this nonsense is not stopped.

  4. If you are a man, you can’t use pictures of attractive women, in any context at all, as that would be “objectifying” women.

    You are however, free to use pictures of men (especially in uniform, as in “a plumber”, “a soldier”, “a policeman”, etc) since it is very clear that you are presenting their individual personalities and personhood in those cases.

  5. Yes. Discourage the use of Lena. It isn’t about being offended but putting the women in the group at higher risk of an unpleasant encounter with a male who might feel emboldened to harass in the school or work environment. Pretend your mother or sweet little sister (who doesn’t care to see pictures of men in uniform) is in the group/class

  6. I’m a guy (and don’t have any particular problem with porn in general) and while I wouldn’t say I find using the picture “offensive” exactly, it’s always struck me as kind of ooky. Certainly it doesn’t do much to help CS’s rep of being a boys club. So I’m glad to see it go.

    (plus, while the last paragraph isn’t exactly clear, I read R. Matthew’s piece seems more or less in favor of getting rid of the image. at least its use as a default goto example for image processing papers, which I think is what most people have a problem with).

  7. People need to be offended, it’s good for them, as it reminds them that their values, beliefs and priorities are not necessarly shared and accepted and other ways to think exist.

    The freedom of speech is the freedom to offend, it’s not democracy anymore if auto-censorship prevails for the sake of protecting annoying cry-babies’s ears.

    Stop being so canadian.

    1. That people should fight for the freedom to offend, absolutely. But freedom to offend does not mean that offense should be free. A good offense should be calculated and delivered with precision, lest it just raises the moral noise floor.

      As such, I think a CS course is poor vector for attacks on political correctness as weak as “using a pretty girl’s picture”. You will likely shock no one because the internet (miss) but help turn away potential students by reinforcing stereotypes (miss, again).

      …Unless you’re “that guy” who’s on a mission to show the world how free he his, then sure, indulge yourself – and let us judge your performance.

  8. I’ll paraphrase something I said on Twitter: It sucks as a test image so I don’t get why anyone would want to use it anyway.

  9. I think people are confused about what’s offensive. I can only speak for myself but this isn’t about being prudish or shameful about sexuality. It about supposed professionals telling pee-pee/poo-poo jokes. It’s embarrassing to listen to. Like viz of 3D (or slices) of distributions that look like “cock-n-balls”. If you want to mix things up and be offensive with a test image then try something like a gay fisting image by some great photographer, but it’d be nice if has some merit for content.

  10. Keep the Lena picture as good reference. Simply, well-formed women most human folk find beautiful.

    This comes of long path. Always had side interests in Art and Psychology. From photography sites in the early social web, found an asymmetry. Women find the female form beautiful more often than the male form. Take this as matching asymmetries.

    Human intelligence is (at present) the evolutionary equivalent of peacock feathers. There is a book:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Red_Queen:_Sex_and_the_Evolution_of_Human_Nature

    We are of nature bound to find a well-formed female beautiful.

    That is our nature.

    When I go to practice drawing at a local artist’s studio, the models are most often female. The artists in attendance are at least equal between male and female genders. Yet the sessions with a male model are less well attended.

    Our notions of beauty are bound to the female form.

  11. “That particular issue had a piece of prostitution.” A piece *on* prostitution seems much more likely, unless it was an exceedingly avant garde magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *