With artificial intelligence-powered “photos” winning competitions and fake portraits garnering thousands of fans, we are well past the point where we should be worried. We should be downright frightened.
Even though artificial intelligence-powered (AI) image generation only really hit the mainstream less than a year ago, it has pervaded the photography industry to the point it is now actively undermining it.
Two incidents in quick succession have raised the alarm. First, an AI image fooled judges and won a photography contest. Second, a popular Instagram account posting stunning “portraits” was exposed as, you guessed it, AI.
While the AI artists behind the photo contest quickly confessed to their con and gave back the prize money, the man behind the AI Instagram account allowed his followers to believe he was a legitimately amazing photographer – for four months.
It raises the question as to what else is going on. What other deceits are happening out there that PetaPixel and the rest of the industry don’t know about?
Despite looking at AI images on a regular basis, it’s not always straightforward to pick what is genuine and what is synthetic.
For example, Jos Avery, the man behind the Instagram account posting AI images, says that it takes “an enormous amount of effort” to make an AI image look like a real photograph. I absolutely believe him. It’s not just getting your text prompts right in Midjourney, an incredible amount of editing work needs to go into the images to make them look like real photos. That requires skill and experience.
But then, that’s entirely missing the point.
Avery was actively deceiving genuine photographers, letting them believe that his work was vastly superior. Allowing viewers to believe that he had genuine encounters with these faux souls. This gets into the very crux of portrait photography and what makes it so powerful — a human connection.
We spoke with an actual portrait photographer, Gareth Jenkins, who had left praise on Avery’s profile. He told me that the account’s deceit “saddened” him.
“For me portraiture is such a personal experience between me and my sitter. That can never be replaced by AI – where’s the joy, the magic moment where you hopefully capture that special essence?”
If AI images and human-created photographs become indistinguishable from one another, where exactly does that leave the industry? How will anyone ever be able to trust what is the work of a hardworking photographer and what was spat out of a series of computer programs?
It has the chilling potential to undermine the photo industry in a massive way. Don’t forget, this is still a very new technology and people are only just catching up to it. Once the masses figure out that photos can be faked in such a way, how will the general public view photography? Might they become cynical?
All this, lest we remind you, from technology that was built on the backs of millions of photographers who were not compensated at all for having their work fed into a machine-learning neural network.
Here at PetaPixel, we will continue to scour the airwaves for deceptions and falsehoods and sound the alarm when we spot these disturbing practices.
Is There Hope?
We have been all doom and gloom to this point because we have thus far believed that the only photography industry that would really feel the pinch of AI-generated images is the stock photo segment. But seeing those portraits has me thinking that there are more risks than that, including photography competitions.
There is still going to be a place for photographers though, so there is some hope. You’re not going to rely on AI to show you what is happening in the war in Ukraine, for example. You can’t hire AI to take photos of your wedding. Newspapers and publications aren’t going to run them to go alongside news stories — at least, they shouldn’t.
We are certainly more worried about AI images than we were six months ago, but there are plenty of reasons to feel okay about photography, at least for now. Still, we’ll be sleeping with one eye open.
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Image credits: Absolutely Ai, Jos Avery