Is It Time We Dropped Master/Slave Terminology?

Is It Time We Dropped Master/Slave Terminology?

In recent weeks, racial inequality has been brought to the forefront of awareness for many around the world. In light of the cultural shift that has the world talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, is it time for the photography community to change some terminology?

Like any other art form or type of work, photography has indeed seen its fair share of racial injustice and prejudice. Sometimes, it's outright racism from one person to another based on their ethnicity or color of their skin. Other times, it's the unconscious bias that seeps into the minds of otherwise well-intending people.

Becoming More Aware

Sarah Lewis screenshot of her twitter

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an Associate Professor at Harvard, writing on race, justice, and images, who wrote a piece in the New York Times entitled The Racial Bias Built Into Photography

In an interesting piece in the New York Times, Sarah Lewis talks about racial bias built into photography. In Lewis' first example, she talks of preparing to speak about images and justice on a university campus when she discovers that the technician says something that doesn't sit right:

'We have a problem. Your jacket is lighter than your face,' the technician said from the back of the one-thousand-person amphitheater-style auditorium. 'That’s going to be a problem for lighting.' She was handling the video recording and lighting for the event.

It's a very poignant opening that provoked a startling realization in me that photographers use specific terms not necessarily to offend or verbalize prejudices, but that carry weight regardless of the intention behind them. The derivation of the terminology used in the photographic community is something that we should all be aware of and consider changing.

A Shift in Lighting Terms

I've worked in publishing for the past six or seven years now, and in that time, I've written and filmed tutorials on a variety of photographic topics for clients all around the world. As the Technique Editor on N-Photo magazine (a Nikon-specific magazine) for a number of years, I was responsible for producing original tutorials that covered gear, lighting, and post-processing software, as well as other things. I noticed during this time that I felt the most uncomfortable wording my copy or addressing viewers on the video when discussing lighting and editing techniques.

Canon master slave manual screenshot

A screenshot from page three of the Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT flash gun manual shows the terms master and slave, as it would in many other flash and studio strobe user manuals across manufacturers

For a long time in electrical engineering, as well as programming and other technical endeavors, master and slave terms have been used to describe one component being controlled by another. We see this in our lighting, with flashguns and studio strobes acting as masters, which control or trigger the reaction of other slave units. This is simply used to synchronize lights so that you can control the intensity of key, fill, or other types of lights in your set. However, with a strong connection with the terms used in slavery, is there a better term that we could be using?

Microsoft-owned software development platform Github has recently announced that the company intends to remove the term master and instead replace it with main. Github is reportedly worth around $2 billion, so if a giant company such as this can make a change, there's no reason why the photographic community couldn't make the same change. I certainly wouldn't miss the terms master or slave.

A Change in Editing Terminology

My other contention, perhaps not a view widely shared with my photography friends, is the use of the term Blacks and Whites when talking about image editing. I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom predominantly, but many other image editing software uses the same terms when it comes to the darkest and brightest sections of a photo.

ACR blacks and whites sliders screenshot

Adobe Camera Raw displays the Whites and Blacks sliders under the Basic editing tools

I found it particularly difficult to write about when suggesting to "reduce the blacks" and "boost the whites" when talking about increasing contrast in a photograph. I've also heard other phrases such as "crush the blacks" or "enhance the whites." So, I would often and still do refer to them as the "blacks slider" and "whites slider." By introducing the noun "slider," I'm getting specific with my language, referring only to this piece of editing software in this particular context. This wording technique benefits additionally from the removal of anthropomorphism as well. For example, I may write something like this.

To make this image really pop, let's define the threshold of the brightest and darkest parts of the image. Increase the Whites slider by +35 to enhance highlights in the sky, and set the Blacks slider to -20 to allow the shadows to deepen.

Note my intention not to refer to the Blacks slider as decreasing, but rather setting. In fact, I think the slider is the wrong way round because if I wanted the dark portions of my photograph to get darker, I would've thought adding a positive value to the Blacks slider would increase the predominance of Blacks in the image, so +35 on the Blacks slider should make the image darker, not brighter as it currently does. I'm also getting precise with number values of +35 and -20 so as to further increase specificity.

But I understand Adobe's probably trying to unify the user interface experience by keeping a left movement of the slider a shift towards the darker and a right movement a shift towards the lighter, as we see in every control in the Tone pane, whether in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.

Lightroom whites and blacks sliders screenshot

Lightroom Classic contains Whites and Blacks sliders that adjust the brightest and darker portions of an image under the Tone pane in the Develop module

Also, I suppose a counter-argument to that would be that black is black, and white is white. As photographers, we work with the whole color gamut, and this includes having black and white subjects, regardless of human inclusion in the frame. And I guess that's right because my printer paper is white and my DSLR is black, and we shouldn't be so cautious as to say we shouldn't use those terms. But being aware of the grammatical structure around those terms is still important, I think.

My Final Thoughts

I'm sure certain terms slip through my net now and again, as indeed, they may for lots of other photographers and writers out there, though I do my best to avoid it. But being aware of them and making an effort to nudge our awareness in the right direction is, in my opinion, the key to removing unconscious racial bias. If changing a few of our terms helps push that along, then surely, that's for the better.

When I first started learning about photography I didn't care what things were called. I didn't have a preference whether it was called master or main; I was too busy trying to make sense of the arbitrary jargon that photographers use, including things like "good glass," "ISO 800," or "shooting wide open." So, if we shifted terminology to remove any underlying discrimination, who would it really hurt? Perhaps we might be taking a step in the right direction.

Images used with permission by ATC Comm Photo via Pexels.

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139 Comments

caleb smith's picture

Absolutely it is. We should also stop making black and white photos, its amazing that it is the year 2020 and people still think it is ok to segregate colors in such a way. Additionally I think its long overdue camera manufacturers stop 'using' the color black for their cameras. Perhaps rainbow would be a better non offensive color.

Nitin Chandra's picture

LoL...Some people never get it...They just keep promoting hatred and division!

Deleted Account's picture

Too late. Kentucky Governor proposed free universal health care only for blacks. (that's what is called "institutional racism").
Read it on NPR: https://www.npr.org/2020/06/09/873377543/governor-promises-to-provide-fr...

Studio 403's picture

I live in KY, What the Governor proposes violates Civil rights laws on the books. Regardless of one’s political views, This is reverse racism. The law as written cannot discriminate one “color” over another. It political theater only. The Gov is an attorney as was his father the former Governor of KY. It is illegal to propose such law.

Studio 403's picture

Nice try with this gobbledygook article. I think common sense folk understand one cannot as the law reads now, it is unlawful to discriminate health benefits to one color and not to another color. This is federal law. Suggest you read the civil rights act as it stands now. Or call your favorite civil rights lawyer. So John , You are here only to "have your right to protest. Good for you. Suggest you depart from responding to me. I am into debating your rhetoric. I have no interest or time to lower my standards of discourse with you.

Scoops Fantastic's picture

I'm 1/4th black is that enough to get on the free healthcare? maybe I'm too German for it :/

Edit: aww shewt. it's only fer them kentuckians :[

Ivan Lantsov's picture

if not want to offend wrap you in cotton then they say you breath to loud! stop being silly stupid, it just name

David Moore's picture

Yes, just so we can stop talking about it.

Christian Lainesse's picture

We could switch to Dominant and Submissive, and in the same vein, change Password to Safeword.

Ted Lee's picture

Boss and employee.Oh wait, that offends the unemployed.

King and Queen. Oh wait, that offends the feminists.

Male and female. Oh wait, that offends the intersex.

Parent and child. Oh wait, that offends the fatherless.

Leader and follower. Oh wait, that offends the anarchists.

Planet and satellite. Oh wait, that offends the flat earthers.

Dominant and submissive. Oh wait, that arouses the S&M crowd.

And on and on and on.

The offended will never run out of things to be offended by once you've kneeled down before them.

Dale Karnegie's picture

wtf? why are you obsessed with personifying electronic devices? king and queen? male and female?

are these photographic tools or your only friends?

"controller/transmitter" and "receiver" is how tons of other electronic devices refer to this relationship...

Dale Karnegie's picture

I think your intention was to prove that anything other than "master/slave" is absurd --

but I think you kinda made the opposite point...

BDSM has nothing to do with flashes...just like Slavery has nothing to do with flashes

Therefore, we shouldn't use "dom/sub" just like we shouldn't use "master/slave"

we should use transmitter/receiver --- because that's literally what these electronic devices do.

sam dasso's picture

No they are not. Master flash flashes and causes slave to flash. Transmitter and receiver work on radio waves and transmitter can be build in to a flash or be a separate unit on a hot shoe. Master and slave have been used for decades just like male and female connectors. Maybe we should invent non-binary connectors to satisfy PC crowd?

Christian Lainesse's picture

Lighten up, Francis. I was making a joke.

Dave Dundas's picture

Actually, they're usually all transceivers... they just have one that acts as the master, so... *shrug*

Cristian G.'s picture

So what words would you propose to use in replacing those master/slave ones?

Alex Reiff's picture

With flash units specifically, they're also called transponder and receiver.

Dale Karnegie's picture

controller/receiver imo works well (or transmitter/receiver)

Patrick Hall's picture

The problem with this is controller/receiver or transmitter and receiver often refer to modes that deal with radio communication. "Slave" or optical slave are often a completely different mode of receiving a signal. How would we distinguish receiver from optical slave move?

Jeff Lazell's picture

You can always just call it a "photocell" or "photocell mode" as that is the name of the sensor used In the mode you are describing.

Dale Karnegie's picture

why can't we describe the flash as being "optically triggered"? or in a "optical trigger mode"? is that not sufficient?

"optical slave" is probably the dumbest use of the word slave in this context -- imagine seeing that phrase if you had never heard it before. What do those two words have to do with each other? Is the phrase "optical slave" intuitive? not at all -- it doesn't even come close to describing what functionality to expect

Jon The Baptist's picture

I remember this conversation years and years ago when Hard Drives were able to drop their jumper pins moving from IDE to SATA interface.

Dale Karnegie's picture

The most interesting thing about this article is the comments section.

At the suggestion of being aware of/sensitive to the historical context of the language we use, people are incensed. lol. I love how acknowledging the historical context in which our language evolved pisses people off because it breaks their safe-space bubble

imo, the use of master/slave is pretty damn weird. every other electronic device that uses similar remote control doesn't use it.

We don't call our the "remote control" for our TV the "master" and the tv the "slave". We don't control our "slave" drones with a handheld "master".

The generic terminology we use in electronics should work fine: we have a bunch of "receivers" and one is a "controller/transmitter". Why overcomplicate it?

Michael Krueger's picture

Thing is master/slave are generic terms with electronics and both hold multiple definitions in the English language.

Dale Karnegie's picture

The english language evolves based on usage. Because we have applied the slavery metaphor to electronic devices, eventually dictionaries are going to include it as a definition. The question posed by this article is -- should we stop using the metaphor? should we evolve our language with intention?

My answer is -- sure why not:

1) its kinda insensitive to the historical usage of those terms

2) it's not even a particularly good metaphor for how flashes work. "optical slave" is a particularly stupid term -- its like we are forcing the word "slave" into something that is better called an "optically triggered strobe"

3) why is controller/receiver or transmitter/receiver not enough?

Eli Weitz's picture

In re: your points: 1. How are terms that only relate to radio/optical flash technology functions considered insensitive to people vis-a-vis racism/enforced, against-their-will-slavery? Sorta covered by "it's not what you say, but how you say it" 2. The metaphor works bc it describes what the camera- mounted flash's radio/optical signal achieves - remote triggering & feature control, & does it succintly. Flashes are inanimate objects, their remote control circuitry can't have thoughts, racist, insensitive or otherwise. 3. Controller & Receiver relate to triggering/feature-setting-assignments fm on-camera flash to on lightstand flash, not the flashes themselves, or people, or how one race treats/mistreats other.

This whole discussion is buying into the irrational anthropomorphism of inanimate, brainless electronic tools into vehicles that propogate racial values based on twisting the real meanings of tech terms.

When you see an ad for MindValley self improvement classes on FB, announcing a Master class on (let's say) Meditation, does your mind immediately jump to it being a class that teaches how to be a Master of Slaves? Of course NOT! The description of the class is meant to convey that it is a deep, all inclusive class on Meditation!

To improve racial interactions between police & citizens, it is better to talk about getting police officers with real & repeated abuse complaints removed fm the job. That directly addresses the issue in a very practical sense.

Calling a flash configured by a fotog 'Main', 'Controller', rather then slave is merely contrived bandying of innocent words describing tech functionality , trying yo make them racist & being derelict about actually doing something that will keep repeat abusing police officers off the force. And let's talk about the higher-ups & the
Internal Affairs Bureau who permit these repeat abusers to stay on the job!

Dale Karnegie's picture

I read your post and im going to summarize for everyone who doesn't want to read a wall of text.

> Electronics have no feelings about race so using them in this context isn't racist & not using these words doesn't help race relations.

Here's my take on why I think the language we use matters:

To recap what the "master/slave" relationship looked like in real life: brutal murder, rape of women and children, torture, and a complete denial of human rights.

Casual use in our language to the term "slave" undermines the uniquely despicable nature of act; the idea is that we refer to slavery with the same gravity that we refer to the Holocaust or other similar atrocities.

Just like you wouldn't use a "SS/Jew" metaphor to describe how flashes work, it is reasonable not to use "master/slave". It's about sensitivity to real historic events that occurred that continue to have to real world ramifications to this day.

> Let's talk about the higher-ups & the Internal Affairs Bureau

that's optimistic but if people are unwilling to even change a single word they use, I suspect there's very little chance we'll be able to make fundamental, deeply uncomfortable societal changes like what you are suggesting.

John Pesina's picture

You brought up a Nazi reference in a discussion that has nothing to do with WWII, Hitler, or Nazi's, you lose the automatically lose the argument. Godwin's law.

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