Filed in: Direction, Featured, Film

Losing Lena Documentary Examines Landmark Photograph

July 31, 2020 | By
Lenna Sjööblom

Lenna Sjööblom

In November 1972, Lenna Sjööblom was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month, posing for a series of pictures in her first and only nude photo session. Born Lena Söderberg on March 31, 1951, in Sweden, she had no idea that one of the photos, the centerfold, would become pivotal in the development of digitally-based imagery. In fact, the photo, completely unbeknownst to Söderberg, went on to be utilized by countless computer technicians, working globally in the development of what became the group of standard digital image files which are commonly serviced today.

Almost 50 years after the photograph in question was taken, a 25-minute film about this phenomenon has been created in Australia. Entitled Losing Lena, the project was produced by Francesca Walker and directed by Kyra Bartley. “Essentially, the idea came to us through a Sydney advertising agency who had been looking into the story of Lena about a year before we jumped on board,” Walker explained, noting that Söderberg had gone underground since the centerfold appeared. “One of the creatives from Facebook was messaging a Lena, but it was the wrong person in the end.”

As the photo had been in constant use in computer technology spheres for over 40 years, many people were familiar with the image but totally uninformed about the woman being portrayed, only in a head-and-shoulders crop of the original image. “There must be something more to this story,” Walker wondered of the image and Söderberg’s whereabouts. “They ended up getting some professional investigators who were local in Sweden. One found her, and Michael Hilliard, fellow producer, got in touch with her. She opened her arms to five Australians to fly across the world to speak to her, to explain where we are coming from—she gave us her trust.”

L-R: Cinematographer Anna Howard, Lenna , Producer Francesca Walker, Director Kyra Bartley

L-R: Cinematographer Anna Howard, Lenna Sjööblom, Producer Francesca Walker & Director Kyra Bartley

 

In addition to making the connection with Söderberg, the filmmakers embarked on intensive research to integrate not only relevant computer history, starting with engineers at the University of Southern California who discovered Söderberg’s photos when they initially sought to transfer photochemical images into digital files, but also an overall treatise on women in technology. “Women had been in the forefront, but a few someones decided it was a man’s place,” said Walker of women who entered the computer technology arena, actually long before the advent of the personal computer.

Walker continues: “Kyra and I wanted this to be a history lesson, cautionary tale, but provide a glimmer of hope towards the future. Women have been there from the foundation of computer science or engineering. We wanted it to be a balanced discussion and everyone’s point-of-view. What is the future going to look like if we don’t diversify now? It’s a lot of content to fit into 25 minutes.”

As the film evolved, the filmmakers realized that Söderberg’s story was symbolic of women’s position in the technological world. “My world is based around images,” unveiled director Bartley. “There was this story based on this single image that had such a huge impact on the development of modern computer science; I was drawn to exploring it. It was immediately obvious that was a story to illuminate how men and women had been treated in the tech world, and how women’s contributions had been minimized.”

Lena Soderberg

Lena Soderberg

Although Bartley was fascinated by the most referenced image ever in computer science, she was even more intrigued by the notion that Söderberg’s photo actually encapsulated the underlying problems of the lack of diversity in technology. “I wanted to dig a little deeper in that,” Bartley revealed. “I had a week to ten days of prep before we jumped into a plane and headed to Sweden. I wanted to learn from the experts that we were talking to along the way.”

Of utmost importance, Losing Lena represented the only time that Söderberg had agreed to discuss her photo’s incorporation in a much more widespread forum than one issue of Playboy. “We were so lucky to get her,” Bartley said of Söderberg’s participation. “How famous the image has become, but how little people have cared about Lena as a person. We never wanted to come across like we were demonizing the fact that Lena had done a Playboy centerfold—she’s very proud of the photo. We wanted to show where that fits as a historical image in the development of computer science: how it has been used historically, and what that says about women’s place in the industry.”

Lenna_Sjööblom_COMPUTER_SCREEN

According to Bartley, in making Losing Lena, a theme arose with regards to the unintended consequences of that 1972 photo shoot. “Understanding how small actions—not done with malicious intent —can have long-reaching effects,” she described, “making sure that the audience was aware that we weren’t pointing the finger and trying to create an incendiary film. From a technical standpoint, one of the most challenging things was how much information you had to fit into that 25 minutes.”

After one early test screening, the filmmakers received unexpected feedback from viewers. “We found that we had to give more weight to our male subjects than we originally thought of,” Bartley conveyed of the interviews which appear in Losing Lena. “We find that balance; technically, in making the film, that was a real challenge. You are balancing so much information and emotion, and [must] articulate the right tone that comes out of it. A bit of a mind-bending puzzle, but really rewarding.”

In fact, the filmmakers sought out all manner of interviewees to discuss the history of women in technology. “The whole point of this film is to ask experts to share their knowledge to form a unified point-of-view from all of them,” noted Bartley. “We wanted to make sure in deciding who the subjects would be to have people from a range of different backgrounds: professors, students, people working within different fields in tech. Part of the reason that I find the issue so interesting is that there are so many contributing factors to women in tech.”

Lenna Sjööblom, 2019

Lenna Sjööblom, 2019

Even though the filmmakers had a wealth of content on which to draw, their intent was always to release Losing Lena online through Facebook Watch in its shortened running time. “We were frustrated at what we had to leave out,” Bartley commented. “What we really wanted to do was introduce this conversation to an audience who wouldn’t necessarily encounter it otherwise. You can keep more people who are new to the issue engaged for 25 minutes.”

With hundreds of millions of potential viewers on Facebook, the filmmakers were satisfied with Losing Lena’s availability to anyone online at any time. As to whether this project can be expanded into a feature-length documentary, typically 70 minutes or more, the principals kept the possibilities open. “There’s definitely a feature to be made, but this was a jumping off point,” stated Bartley. “If we were going to do a longer piece, make it more globally inclusive. Expanding the conversation to Asia and non-Western countries. I would love to do further exploration on the implications of a lack of diversity going toward the future.”

To view Losing Lena, please link to: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=985614161797010

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