Losing Lena – Why Removing One Image Will End Tech’s Original Sin

By Robyn Foyster Robyn Foyster has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 25 November 2023

Lena, a Swedish Playboy model who prefers not to use her surname nowadays, is the face of the most used test image in the world – and it all happened in the 70s after she did a Playboy centrefold.

Lena was a Swedish Playboy model whose image was picked in the early 70s by a team of male researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) to become the ideal test image for algorithms used in programs to digitalize film photos. The research Lena’s image was used for became the basis for the development of the digital image file ‘JPEG’. 

Now, Lena is joined by multiple organisations including Women Love Tech and Code Like A Girl in her plea to the world to have the image of herself be removed.

“I retired from modelling a long time ago,” said Lena in a new documentary film called Losing Lena. “It’s time I retired from tech, too. We can make a simple change today that creates a lasting change for tomorrow. Let’s commit to losing me.”

The new film explains how there’s a secret hidden in almost every website and every digital image you’ve ever seen and that secret is Lena, who is “a face more studied than the Mona Lisa’s” and has been called Tech’s Original Sin.

But how did a centrefold from the 70’s become the most used test image in the world? And what impact has it had on women studying or entering tech industries?

Losing Lena
Tech’s Original Sin – The Controversial Shot of Lena Forsen

Lena’s story began in 1972 when the Swedish model posed as the Miss November centrefold. The next year, her centrefold was chosen by some men at the University of Southern California (USC) as an ideal test image for the algorithms they were working on to turn physical photos into digital bits. This research laid the groundwork for what would later become the jpeg, an image standard that revolutionised our digital world.

Incredibly, 51 years on, Lena is still the most infamous test image in the world. She is symbolic of how women were left out, and pushed out, of the industry.

Created by FINCH and Clemenger BBDO Sydney for tech organisations, Creatable & Code Like a Girl, Losing Lena questions the very tenets of the tech industry and leaves us pondering: Why wasn’t Lena retired years ago? It explores a thread that binds together so many similar challenges and biases women in tech have experienced around the world.

Code Like a Girl founder and CEO, Ally Watson, said, “The role of Lena’s image in tech’s history is representative of so many of our industry’s shortcomings. Tech is used by everyone – no matter your age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual identity. But when our tech is developed by a small subset of homogenous individuals, it’s impossible for the end product to be without bias.”

With its appearance in tens of thousands of journals, educational resources and books, Lena has been taught to young women and men in schools and universities for decades. We need to question, what place does Lena’s photograph have in the modern world of tech industry and education where women are still fighting for an equal place alongside men?

Losing Lena ends with a call on individuals, tech companies, universities and image processing facilities around the world to stop using Lena, and to help drive equal representation of, engagement with, and respect for women and girls across all areas of tech.

Lena Forsen, a Swedish Playboy model, is the face of the most used test image in the world
Lena Forsen, a Swedish Playboy model, is the face of the most used test image in the world

“This documentary illustrates just how much effort is still needed to increase diversity in the teams building tech,” adds Ally. “It’s a call to the leaders of our industry to commit to Losing Lena. Because with the removal of one image, we’re better positioned to welcome millions of women to the table.”

FINCH’s Kyra Bartley, the film’s director, said she was “struck by how succinctly Lena’s story demonstrates the impact of small, seemingly inconsequential actions on the generations who come after – and of course, the spotlight that throws on our current attitudes to recognising and addressing problematic practices within STEM industries.”

Kyra adds: “Far from being a finger-pointing exercise though, the film encourages people to engage with these ideas as part of a broader conversation on diversity, and to consider the ways in which their own actions could contribute to moving us all forward.”

As we rush into artificial intelligence and machine learning, some of the biggest technological changes of our time, Losing Lena questions whether we’re able to learn from the unconscious biases of the past? Or are we doomed to repeat them?

In her book Brotopia, author Emily Chang says: “The prolific use of Lena’s photo can be seen as a harbinger of behaviour within the tech industry.

“In Silicon Valley today, women are second-class citizens and most men are blind to it.” For Chang, the moment that Lena’s centrefold was torn and scanned marked “tech’s original sin.” “

Now, it’s time for the tech industry, businesses, universities and organisations to do something about it by finding a substitute image which can be found on the website www.losinglena.com.

About Code Like a Girl

Code Like a Girl is a social enterprise providing girls and women with the confidence, tools, knowledge and support to enter and flourish in the world of coding.

About Creatable

Creatable is a creative technology curriculum that leverages industry partnerships and engaging, high-impact learning experiences to ignite a passion for creative technology and prepare young women for the future of work.


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