The camera never lies? Creator of AI image rejects prestigious photo award

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The winner of a Sony World Photography Award has refused to accept the prize after revealing the winning photo he submitted was created using an artificial intelligence image generator.

The Berlin-based German photographer Boris Eldagsen won the Creative category of the award’s 2023 Open competition, and was garlanded at a ceremony on 13 April in London. The award is considered one of photography’s most prestigious honours.

By entering a computer-generated image to a traditional photography prize, and then subsequently refusing to accept the ensuing award, Eldagsen claims he hopes to “drive debate” about a technology that is poised to dramatically alter how we define and understand photorealist imagery.

Eldagsen’s winning image, Pseudomnesia: The Electrician, was created using DALL-E 2, an image generator developed by OpenAI, the San Francisco-based company that also created the AI chatbot ChatGPT.

In his submission, Eldagsen described the image as “a haunting black-and-white portrait of two women from different generations, reminiscent of the visual language of 1940s family portraits”.

A spokesperson for the award has responded by accusing Eldagsen of “deliberate attempts at misleading us” by entering the competition under a false pretence and with the intention of spurning the award.

The award’s judging panel was aware that Eldagsen’s image was AI-generated and awarded the prize in that knowledge, the spokesperson says.

In previous years, the award’s creative category has traditionally honoured photographs that have challenged the boundaries of a conventional photograph. “The award welcomes various experimental approaches to image making,” the spokesperson tells The Art Newspaper.

Shortly after the prize was announced, Eldagsen appeared without invitation on stage to address the gathered audience. In a spontaneous address, he said AI images are not photographs and therefore should not be considered in competitions designed for camera-based practitioners.

Eldagsen then published a statement on his website in which he accused the competition’s judges of failing to distinguish between a photographic image and a ‘generative’ image created by an AI machine.

“I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter,” Eldagsen wrote. “They are not.”

“How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it?” he added. “AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.”

Speaking to BBC Radio on 18 April, Eldagsen said of the image: “It looks like a 1940s vintage wet-plate [collodion] photograph.”

Eldagsen used the phrase ‘promptography’ to describe the image, alluding to the way platforms like DALL-E 2 and ChatGPT rely on ”prompts“—specific instructions from a user—to create bespoke imagery or content.

“Promptography is done with prompts. Photography is done with light,” Eldagsen told the BBC. “I think it’s very important to differentiate these [two things] by terms, and then to have an open discussion about this in the photography world. Is the umbrella of photography large enough to say [this type of imagery] is part of it? Because the visual language is the same.”

A spokesperson for the Sony World Photography Awards tells The Art Newspaper: “During our various exchanges with Boris Eldagsen ahead of announcing him as the Creative category winner in the Open competition on 14 March, he had confirmed the ‘co-creation’ of this image using AI. In our correspondence he explained how following ‘two decades of photography, my artistic focus has shifted more to exploring creative possibilities of AI generators’ and further emphasising the image heavily relies on his ‘wealth of photographic knowledge’. As per the rules of the competition, the photographers provide the warranties of their entry.

“The Creative category of the Open competition welcomes various experimental approaches to image making from cyanotypes and rayographs to cutting-edge digital practices.

“As such, following our correspondence with Boris and the warranties he provided, we felt that his entry fulfilled the criteria for this category, and we were supportive of his participation. Additionally, we were looking forward to engaging in a more in-depth discussion on this topic and welcomed Boris’ wish for dialogue by preparing questions for a dedicated Q&A with him for our website.

“As he has now decided to decline his award we have suspended our activities with him and in keeping with his wishes have removed him from the competition. Given his actions and subsequent statement noting his deliberate attempts at misleading us, and therefore invalidating the warranties he provided, we no longer feel we are able to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue with him.

“We recognise the importance of this subject and its impact on image-making today. We look forward to further exploring this topic via our various channels and programmes and welcome the conversation around it. While elements of AI practices are relevant in artistic contexts of image-making, the Awards always have been and will continue to be a platform for championing the excellence and skill of photographers and artists working in the medium.”

• The Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition is at Somerset House, London, until 1 May

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