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Artist wins prestigious photography prize with AI, refuses the award, gets scrubbed from the competition, and says we need to talk about banning AI from this stuff

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Last year saw the emergence of public-facing AI tools, and an ongoing slew of stories about how people are using the tech, as well as the debate over what it should be used for. Now an artist, who calls himself a “cheeky monkey”, has shocked the photography world by winning one of its major prizes, before revealing the ‘photograph’ was an AI creation, refusing the award, and calling for AI to be banned from such competitions. 

German artist Boris Eldagsen entered and won the creative open category at last week’s Sony World Photography Awards with an image called Pseudomnesia: The Electrician. As part of the judging process he also gave the judges certain assurances about the work, claiming it was a “co-creation” of AI. The creative category is specifically about original and experimental approaches to photography, so one can see that using cutting edge tech to assist in altering a photograph would seem to fit such criteria.

But, Eldagsen now admits, “I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not.” Eldagsen calls this a “historic moment” for photography and directly addresses his peers and the wider community:

“[This] is the first AI generated image to win in a prestigious international photography competition,” said Eldagsen. “How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it?

“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.”

Eldagsen goes on to call for an “open discussion” on “what we want to consider photography and what not.” He says his intention with this stunt was to “speed up this debate” about whether AI should be a part of photography awards and points out he’s been a photographer for 30 years before using AI. 

For its part, a spokesperson for the Sony Photography Awards told the BBC it felt Eldagsen had misled the judges, on the basis of which “we felt that his entry fulfilled the criteria for this category […] 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.”

In some ways this will be a re-run of a well-honed argument across various disciplines, which over history have treated technological advance warily: In terms of AI especially, a story that stuck in my mind recently was when an AI artist won an art prize and was brazenly unapologetic about it, saying the art world was “in denial.”

Photography itself was viewed with suspicion and in some cases fear long after its invention. But it is not hard to see how a technology that conjures unreal but real-looking images from thin prompts is seen as a useful tool by some photographers and an existential problem by others. Part of the medium’s appeal, after all, is surely that a photograph is an authentic image of the world as it was in some spot of time. 

“There is a problem here in the photography industry,” said photographer and blogger Feroz Khan. “With this intention, Boris has stated that he wants photography contest organisers to have separate categories for AI images.

“I appreciate him for wanting this distinction in photo contests. Yes, he entered an AI image into the competition, but it doesn’t seem he was out to defraud anyone. He wanted to highlight an issue that certainly needs a lot more attention from everyone.”

Khan ended by saying that Eldagsen’s stunt had “clearly shown that even experienced photographers and art experts can be fooled.” Which will not be news to anyone interested in the fascinating history of art forgery, but does get at one of the big problems here. Eldagsen by his own admission did mislead the judges to make his point before coming clean: But others will be all-too-happy to fake it to make it, and take the plaudits without ever divulging a given work’s origin. Do competitions like these need anti-AI tools in order to enforce rules? 

An exhibition of the winners and shortlisted images from this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is open now at Somerset House, London, until 1 May 2023. Elgadsen’s image has been removed from the exhibition and website, but can be seen alongside some of his other work at Photo Edition Berlin.

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