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 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.

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.

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 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.

Jason Parnell-Brookes's picture

Jason is an internationally award-winning photographer with more than 10 years of experience. A qualified teacher and Master’s graduate, he has been widely published in both print and online. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014.

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Previous comments

Slave and master have mutliple definitions and the entire world shouldn't need to change the meaning of words or terminology to make Americans feel better about our history with slavery. Not to mention slavery was common for thousands of years and impacted every ethnic group on the planet at some point.

Black and white are colors and commonly used words, should we also get rid of yellow, red, and brown because they also get user to describe skin color? Perhaps the words light and dark need to go as well?

It's sad and perhaps a bit racist that society is trying to make everything about race right now. I've seen members of the black community complain about how the white community is now trying to tell them what is or isn't racist and what should offend them.

There is only ONE definition of slave. Hence why it is a good idea to use different terminology. So why not change it? Is it too hard for you to accept a new technical term?

While there are multiple definitions of Slave, it's interesting to see that the earliest negative definition of slave was 1st dating all the way back to the 14th century. The computer definition was added likely in the 50's/60s...clearly a much later -neutral definition of the word. I think an argument can be made that the computer term was added out of convenience or quite honestly laziness. I'm sure it wasn't a black person who suggested we use Master/Slave in the computer industry.

14th century? I don't think so, slavery is as old as humanity is, the Wikipedia mentions 3500 BC and I can't imagine that it had a positive connotation back then for the slaves. Also making slavery something only black people suffered from in the US is dishonest and contra productive. It diminishes the suffering of all the other victims especially those who are slaves today

It's all going crazy right now and I think that's going to continue for a while.

It's not going to be possible to purge our world of every vestige of the past that can somehow be interpreted as offensive to someone. But people are going to try, for a while, until some other big issue takes over the news media.

Mother of god, the stupidity never ends. Newsflash to those who live in the USA - Masters and Slaves existed long before America and the year 1619, and still exist after the emancipation proclamation of 1865. Slavery wasn't an exclusive black and white thing. And to this day, there are still slaves - black and white and all other colors - being sold. Egypt had the Jews in bondage. The Vikings had the Irish. There are still parts of Africa where slavery exists to this day. And getting your panties in a wad over using the terms Master/Slave to things like Flashes isn't going to make anybody feel any better. It's only going to continue the practice of certain people trying to pretend like slavery never happened in the world.

It happened here. It happened in Egypt. It happened in Ireland. It's happening now in Africa. Pretty sure it's happened in any location where man has dared created a civilization. It's an ugly stain on humanity, and one that shouldn't be glossed over by white washing the terms.

If you remove all the parts of the English language/terminology that offend some people, you'll be left with a few conjugations and no nouns or verbs to conjugate.

There's a difference between "removing" these words from the english language and removing slavery metaphors from official documentation for how to use electronic devices...

Why not use the terms "master/slave" when we are talking about slavery and terms like "transmitter/receiver" when are talking about triggering a flash pop using radio waves...

If you can't understand that...then I'd say yes...the stupidity never ends

There is such a thing as overcompensating...

If you ban words black and white, then what would you call "Black lives matter" or "White supremacists"

You'd call them "Nice people who agree with me" and "horrible people who disagree with me".

I thought transmitter and receiver worked just fine.

If a person is driving a car and they hit the brakes, thereby operating the brake master cylinder, that person, whatever race, color or culture they may be, is the MASTER of that automobile.

We should also ban Master degrees, Master electricians and Master bedrooms.

there's a pretty big difference between using the word master alone and using it in tandem with "slave"...

seems obvious?

I think you are investing far too much time and emotion into this subject, at least the click bait/controversial article has served its purpose in getting you all hot under the collar.

I had completely forgotten these terms for almost 20 years (I was using "primary" and "secondary" instead), until photo blogs such as this one reminded them to me...

Nah, it's fine the way it is. People need to quit making mountains out of mole hills. Stop catering and pandering to panzy asses that get offended about terminologies that have nothing to do with them or any group of people.

We should also stop calling mating parts male and female, because Americans are screwed up when it comes to sex.

How about we allow African Americans tell us what they need, instead of whites continuing to tell them what they need, you absolute muppet.

Here's a thought, why don't we demimitarise police forces, and stop teaching police to view people (especially the poor - see also: African Americans) as enemy combatants.

Also, why don't we start charging police with murder when they murder people.

Here's another thought, large business could put in place positive employment policies.

But at least you published a worthless article about the use of the words master and slave in technology. Also, just an FYI, slavery is still a huge problem.

I see a lot of comment from people who seems annoyed at the topic and that's because it was it's become the norm because it was never brought up. Yes, its time to drop the name. Some people might not feel offended because they just don't care but just like other things in society that were normal just because without consideration about how black people feel it needs to be addressed and changed. A master bedroom derives from Master Bedrooms during slavery. Aunt Jemima, uncle ben, and everything else were just normal to white people but black people had to just deal with it. Transmitter and Receiver suffices. It's sad that people are making stuff about being offended when it literally has ties to the oppression of a whole ass race

Sorry to dissapoint you, slavery is and and never was a white/black thing exclusively.

First of all, the term “master” in itself is not always objectionable and has a lot of valid uses that do not indicate some sort of subjugation of people. Mastering a skill is perfectly fine as is a Master's degree (as opposed to e.g. a Bachelor's degree, unless the implication that a bachelor is less valuable than somebody that is married is considered seriously offending).

“Slave” on the other hand — in all meanings that I know of — somehow refers to people that had no freedom and were the property of their masters, whether directly, as in “slavery”, or indirectly, as in “slaving along” to indicate working hard and in the use of “master”/“slave” to indicate a controlling/controlled device.

It may feel a long time ago for many of us, but slavery is unfortunately still an issue in some places. I really cannot see why avoiding the use of master/slave for devices causes so much indignation and ridicule. If your name is Richard and you do not want to be called “Dick” as a nickname, I would avoid it — actually, I would probably always avoid it unless you explicitly wanted to be called Dick. For me, avoiding using the name has nothing to do with the other meaning of this word but is rather a personal preference.

I am not really trying to be politically correct as a rule (unless there is a good reason, that is) as there are other no-no terms that I find OK to use despite (at least by some) being considered non-PC, like “blackboard”. I do not want to call it “chalkboard” just because some people find the connotations of the “white” chalk providing knowledge and superiority on the back of the subjugated “black” board offensive.

That is just nonsense.

A blackboard is called a blackboard becuase it is, well, a BLACK BOARD. And it was not painted black to indicate subjugation of black people but because the naturally occuring white chalk could easily mark it.

C'mon folks, let us show some respect where respect is due.

Actually one of the Webster definition of slave is " a device (such as the printer of a computer) that is directly responsive to another"

I am sure, if you look at the etymology of that use of the word, you will see that it still, indirectly refers to the subjugation of people in the way that it is derived from that meaning of “slave”.

I hate to tell you, but a slave in fetish is not a bad thing.

I did wonder if and when this would come up. :-)

If you read my post carefully, I do not say that the term slave in itself is bad, only that it directly or indirectly refers to subjugation of people, which is true for fetishes too.

While there are multiple definitions of Slave, it's interesting to see that the earliest negative definition of slave was 1st dating all the way back to the 14th century. The computer definition was added likely in the 50's/60s...clearly a much later -neutral definition of the word. I think an argument can be made that the computer term was added out of convenience or quite honestly laziness. I'm sure it wasn't a black person who suggested we use Master/Slave in the computer industry.

not all chalkboards are black, some are green...

Oy! Martian Lifes Matter!

Yes, it's time.

ha ha ha... this article was published in Petapixel sometime ago and it found its way here :-) I am gonna enjoy reading comments.

It baffles me why this is so important to either side of the debate but it costs almost nothing to change it going forward so just change it if it makes somebody feel better for some reason. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it either way.

Imagine someone accidentally bumps into you in the store -- they say excuse me and you say no problem. You both continue on your ways. No harm, no foul. Now imagine, the person bumps you but doesn't say 'excuse me', rather they give you a dirty look. You move out of the way. Then they bump you again and call you a name. You try to avoid them, but wherever you move they follow and bump you again and accuse you of being clumsy or worse. They are bullying you. At some point you have to stand up to the PC bullies. They never will be appeased. They want your subservience.

Anything that's said will offend someone..... so whatever.....

Yeah I have always been careful not to use the term when I am with models and clients. So I don't tell assistant to put the other light in slave mode, I say the full name "optical slave" so at least they hear it in full context.

This is the stupidest, most absurd article that could ever be written on a photography website. If you think 'decrease black" and "increase white," or slave/master has anything - I repeat - anything to do with race, you are a complete and total buffoon who needs to grow up, get a pair, and stop looking for reasons to be offended. This hypersensitivity is half the problem and none of the solution.

I disagree strongly with the part “If you think … slave/master has anything … to do with race, you are a complete and total buffoon …” — not only is it a completely unnecessary ad hominem attack (well, aren't they always, really), it is also untrue.

It may not directly have anything to do with race, but only because the word “slave” in this context is derived from the meaning of a person, who was owned as property by another person, the master. That in itself does not indicate race. Only, in recent history most slaves were black people of African descent which makes a rather firm connection between “slave” and skin colour.

No matter how much you try to deny it, the word “slave” means or is derived from “a person kept as property” and we have no reason — apart from apathy, laziness and lack of respect — to keep using it for a controlled device.

I have looked in several dictionaries now, including Cambridge, Oxford and Merriam-Webster and all of them define slave as, one way or other, a person in servitude. Merriam-Webster also refers to it as a device controlled by another, which is derivative of the other definition, i.e. an owned person.

According to Wiktionary, the origins of the word “slave” is “[f]rom Middle English, from Old French sclave, from Medieval Latin sclāvus (“slave”), from Late Latin Sclāvus (“Slav”), because Slavs were often forced into slavery in the Middle Ages.”

Please help me, what is it I do not understand? What meaning have I missed? What origin?

Are you a slave? No. You have no basis for offense. You have a problem with history. Changing a name won't change history.

Holy cow....It's getting worst from day to day, doesn't it? I suggest some history class to all the permanently triggered and offended, vitue signaling SJW's. Slavery has been around since mankind exists and looooong before "evil white" set foot on the african continent.

Stop making it a white/black thing only. Its been like that forever. The winner of a battle or a war takes prisoners from the loser of the fight as slaves. Its still like that untill this day. And surprise, even black people took and take other black people as slaves.

And just in case you didn't know, slavery in Africa was already a huge thing before white people came, since islamic conquerors from the arabic peninsula started to invade the african continent to "bring their religion" to the "unbelievers". And no, before anyone screams, that doesn't justify anything at all. Just fkin stop making it, like slavery and racism has been invented by white people.

If you feel bad for crushing the blacks and increase the whites, you do have a serious problem...mentaly. And it's uber wokebobs like you, making it an issue and "racist" thing in the first place.
Maybe you just stop photography at all.? Never heard bigger bullcrap like that. Wasn't there an article once, that said white balance is based on lighter skincolour? So, no matter what you do, every photo you take is "racist".
Anyone complained about black friday already? Black coffe? Black cloths at funerals?.....

And to all the downvoters here: Go educate yourself...

political correctness gone mad!

If you're going to write some dumbass comment about how stupid this is—stop and ask yourself, "will this affect me or my photography in any way?" No, of course not. There's literally no good reason why these terms cannot be changed to something less heated (and no, not liking change is not a "good reason"). Step away from the keyboard, and try and have some empathy for once.

"will this affect me or my photography in any way?"
If we start with things like that, where does it end? Look at the "protests". It has nothing to do with it anymore. For me, its pure Terrorism. At least what? 12 innocent killed by blm and anitfa including 5 Afro-Americans. Havent heard a SINGlE voice for them. Seems these are not worth it for blm or the media.
Streets are burning, innocents killed, existence and jobs for many destroyed, statues fall, movies and books getting pulled from the market. THIS affects everyone.

God I love it that people are so undescriminating that they believe Chinese propagandanda.


"Chinese propagandanda" in terms of what?

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