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
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.
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.
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.
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.