If at first you succeed, try and try again to fail. This is the perverse lesson that has emerged from Boris Eldagsen’s attempt to refuse a prestigious photography award he won with an image he created by using A.I. image generator DALL-E 2.
Concerned by the unchecked proliferation of A.I.-generated images, Eldagsen, a veteran Berlin-based photographer, devised a test: to submit generated images to leading photography prizes, including the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards (SWPA). He would disclose his use of A.I. (unlike the artist who took home an award at a Colorado State Fair for his A.I. artwork), and see if the judging panels were discriminating between real photography and A.I. works.
It turns out SWPA wasn’t and Eldagsen’s months-long exchange with the competition only deepened his alarm.
Eldagsen’s (2022) a ghostly image styled on the psychological portraits of Robert Ballen and part of his “Pseudomnesia: Fake Memories” series, won open SWPA’s Creative category, a prize that came with $5,000 cash, Sony camera gear, and a trip to London to attend the awards ceremony. Eldagsen has been experimenting with A.I. images for more than a year and finesses word prompts before refining created images using in-painting and out-painting techniques.
When Eldagsen received the congratulatory email in February, he responded by proposing a panel to discuss the problems posed by A.I.-generated images in art and journalism. Sony disagreed and continued to offer him the award despite his insistence that it be given to someone else. A similar exchange followed with the organizer Creo Arts.
Nonetheless, Eldagsen was publicly listed among the finalists on March 14. A month later, the photographer refused the award.
“I applied as a cheeky monkey,” he wrote in a statement on his website. “We, the photo world, need an open discussion. A discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not.”
Next, Eldagsen attended the awards ceremony in London. He paid for his flight, hotel, and tuxedo rental, and politely gatecrashed the stage to deliver his statement on A.I. images in person. The response was muted and the show continued with seemingly no reaction from SWPA or Creo Arts. Only later did he find his work had been removed from the website and exhibition.
Despite the experience, Eldagsen is hoping the controversy will spark further conversation.
“The first step would be to come up with a new terminology for A.I.-generated images,” Eldagsen told Artnet News, proposing the term “promptography.” “The second step is to have separate categories for ‘promptography,’ and the third is for the photo community to discuss if ‘promptography’ fits under the umbrella of photography.”