An AI Image Winning a Major Photo Award Has Opened the World’s Eyes

AI feature

Last week, PetaPixel broke the news about an artist refusing a prize after his AI image won a major photo contest and since then major publications have followed up on the story, creating a firestorm.

CNN, BBC, ABC, Fox News, USA Today, CBS, Deutsche Welles, Vice, and Forbes, to name but a few, have now also reported on Boris Elgadsen’s AI portrait of two women that don’t exist winning the Sony World Photography Awards (SWPA) Creative category.

A Major Milestone in Synthetic Imagery

We at PetaPixel have been reporting on the rise of AI images for months and all of us have been astounded at the rapid advancement of the technology — particularly with the release of Midjourney v5.

It was inevitable that an AI image would win a major photo award; the warning signs were there after a synthetic image won a smaller photo contest in Australia.

While keen followers of photography and technology are aware of just how accurately AI can now recreate photos but can still spot a synthetic image like Eldagsen’s, large swathes of people cannot — including the judges from SWPA, apparently.

“THE ELECTRICIAN” by Boris Eldagsen.

British television personality Adrian Chiles penned an article in The Guardian this morning decrying: “In this era of AI photography, I no longer believe my eyes.”

Chiles’s piece gets to the heart of the issue: Millions of people will hear about the SWPA debacle and become skeptical of photos entirely.

“What I do know is that before long, we won’t know anything for sure,” writes Chiles.

“As it stands, however good a fake might be, you can still just about tell it’s a fake. But only just. Sooner rather than later, the joins will disappear. We might even have already passed that point without knowing it. If the judges of the Sony World Photography Awards couldn’t spot the fake, what chance have the rest of us got?”

It’s a good point, how did this image get by the SWPA? They would have known that AI images were on the rise, did anyone at the organization think to say “Let’s not fall into that trap?” Clearly not.

They say all publicity is all good publicity, but I think this scandal has undermined the SWPA, and worse still it’s undermining society’s trust in photographs.

Much like when Photoshop entered into the public sphere and the accusation that images were Photoshopped became commonplace, people will begin accusing genuine photos of being AI.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, the technology will continue to improve and more scandals will inevitably rear its head.

PetaPixel will continue to shine a bright light on the issue.

Update 4/24: After publication, a SWPA spokesperson reached out to say that “the World Photography Organisation was always aware this image included elements of AI throughout the judging process and during our various exchanges with Boris Eldagsen ahead of announcing him as the Creative category winner in the Open competition on 14th March, he had confirmed the ‘co-creation’ of this image using AI.”

Please find below the statement by the World Photography Organisation, 15.04.2023, to be used in full:

During our various exchanges with Boris Eldagsen ahead of announcing him as the Creative category winner in the Open competition on 14th 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 World Photography Organization’s statemeing in full:

“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.”

This story is part of PetaPixel’s weekly newsletter Clipped Highlights.

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Image credits: Feature image by Boris Elgadsen.