German artist Boris Eldagsen seemed to be set for success. His entry won the prize for the creative open category at the Sony World Photography Awards, a prestigious photography competition.
The memorable photo shows a black-and-white portrait of two women, possibly mother and daughter, in an eerie, nostalgic, haunting atmosphere. It paints many questions and feelings in the eye of the beholder, but there’s a catch. It’s not a real photo at all.
The image was created by an image-generating AI. Eldagsen called it titled PSEUDOMNESIA / The Electrician and submitted it to the competition. He admitted he was a “cheeky monkey” with this entry and refused the award.
“AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this,” he continued. “They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.”
It’s the first time an AI image has won a prestigious international photography competition. Just a few weeks ago, an AI image won first prize at a fine arts competition. Eldagsen says it was a ‘historic moment’ and explained that he wanted to see if the judges would figure out the image was AI-made.
“How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it?” the artist wrote on his website.
“I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out, if the comeptitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not.
We, the photo world, need an open discussion. A discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not. Is the umbrella of photography large enough to invite AI images to enter – or would this be a mistake?”
“With my refusal of the award I hope to speed up this debate.”
This stunt shows once again what everyone who’s been paying attention already knows. We are not ready to deal with AI just yet. Whether it’s text generation, image generation, voice, video, or anything else, the technology has made striking leaps over the past few months, and we’re still not capable of dealing with the results.
AI images are upon us
A spokesperson for the World Photography Organisation argued that the image only works so well because it relies on the author’s “wealth of photographic knowledge” — but if an artistic image can fool specialists and expert judges, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Less than a month ago, AI-created images of the Pope in a white puffy jacket made the rounds on social media; the images confused many and tricked them into believing the images are real. Also in March, AI images of Trump getting arrested and Putin kneeling viralized. Even when their creators clearly stated the images are fake, some people were still tricked.
What happens when the authors are less transparent?
Just 3-4 years ago, these AI generators didn’t even exist. Just one year ago, they weren’t good enough to trick anybody. Now, there are not one but several accessible solutions that can produce photorealistic images with ease.
These concerns have reached everyone, from Google’s chief executive, Sundar Pichai, who said concerns about AI had kept him awake at night, to artists like Eldagsen.
Many artists and content creators are already starting to see their commissions replaced by AI. This is doubly problematic as AI systems are using the works of hundreds of thousands of human creators for training. This has already prompted several high-profile lawsuits, but this is unlikely to address the core of the problem.
AI images are coming, they’re realistic, and we have no good way of spotting them. In addition, we still don’t have a good way to deal with problems like copyright, despite a US ruling that AI images can’t be copyrighted.
An urgent conversation
Eldagsen rightfully claims we need to have this conversation now, and not later.
“Having been a photographer for 30 years before I turned to AI, I understand the pros and cons of this debate and will be happy to join the conversation.”
He also encouraged the competition organizers to donate the prize to Ukrainian photographers. However, the organizers said they are no longer able “to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue” with Eldagsen.
“If you don’t know what to do with the prize, please donate it to the fotofestival in Odesa, Ukraine. I will happily provide you the contacts.”