For women in computer-science classrooms, the Lena image can feed into this so-called imposter syndrome. Deanna Needell, now an assistant professor of mathematical sciences at Claremont McKenna College, recalls the first time Lena came up in one of her graduate lecture courses: “All of a sudden, I was singled out for my gender, which was already sort of uncomfortable, because I was in a room of 60, and there were maybe three women.”
Some imaging scholars believe that the Lena image has become so divorced from its original context that it shouldn’t be held up as an example of sexism within their discipline. “When you use a picture like that for so long, it’s not a person anymore; it’s just pixels,” says Jeff Seideman, a former president of the Society of Imaging Science and Technology.
Needell, though, became exasperated by the Lena image’s constant presence in papers and at conferences—and eventually, she decided to flip things around. For a 2013 image-processing study, Needell and her co-author Rachel Ward obtained the rights to an image of the Italian heartthrob Fabio Lanzoni. The study became something of a flagship for the anti-Lena resistance within the field, and Needell has received many requests—nearly all of them from male researchers—to use the Fabio image in their papers.
On a separate level, Needell hopes her objections to Lena will help her fellow researchers broaden their horizons a bit. “There is a joke now that if you want to write a good image-processing algorithm, you just have it output the Lena image,” Needell says. “Everyone is just fine-tuning their algorithms to this specific image.”
It’s a point that members of the image-processing community have been considering for decades now. In 1996, David C. Munson, then the editor-in-chief of the journal IEEE Transactions on Image Processing, wrote an editorial responding to calls for a Lena ban. Ultimately, he didn’t choose to ban the image, but did caution researchers about its overuse. “We could be fine-tuning our algorithms, our approaches, to this one image,” he says. “They will do great on that one image, but will they do well on anything else?”
Researches today have access to tremendously large datasets, allowing them to test their algorithms on dozens, even hundreds, of images. Even so, Lena is still disproportionally chosen to illustrate those algorithms in the final, published work.
In recent years, though, her influence appears to have waned a bit. In the year Munson penned his editorial, there were 57 mentions of Lena (or “Lenna”) in the journal, accounting for more than 30 percent of its articles. In 2015, Lena turned up in only 6.2 percent of articles—some 38 times.
But for Scott Acton, the current editor of IEEE Transactions, that may still be 38 times too many. In December, Acton and two former editors revived the old call for a ban, and proposed to the journal’s editorial board that IEEE Transactions institute a moratorium on Lena research. “In 2016,” he says, “demonstrating that something works on Lena isn’t really demonstrating that the technology works.”