Photo Contests are Woefully Unprepared for AI

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI

When it rains, it pours. Recent controversies have shown that photography competitions, even large, prestigious ones, are woefully unprepared for the ongoing artificial intelligence (AI) revolution.

For the last few years, it’s been all too easy to dismiss AI images as “easy to spot.” However, as recent events demonstrate, competitions should no longer kick the AI-generated can farther down the road, try as some contest organizers might.

Recap: Sony World Photography Awards

After PetaPixel broke the news that a self-described “photo media artist,” Boris Eldagsen, won first place in the Creative category of the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards Open competition with an AI-generated image. The floodgates opened, and a firestorm of controversy commenced.

To Eldagsen’s credit, he declined the prize, although in doing so, perhaps inadvertently embarrassed the competition with which he claims to have wanted a meaningful discussion.

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI
‘THE ELECTRICIAN’ by Boris Eldagsen

Can cheating be a good or just action if it has good intentions, or is it “bad” in and of itself? In either case, the World Photography Organization isn’t interested in open dialogue with Eldagsen about AI technology.

The more pervasive issue isn’t that Eldagsen broke the rules, no matter what he hoped to achieve by doing so. Rather, it is that one of the most prominent photography competitions in the world appears to have no idea how to handle AI-generated images — which are synthesized frauds that have no place in a photography competition.

The Sony World Photography Awards does not mention artificial intelligence in its rules and regulations. That omission isn’t unique to the Sony World Photography Awards or the World Photography Organization. It’s a pattern issue across the board.

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI
Boris Eldagsen and his award-winning AI-generated image, ‘THE ELECTRICIAN’

AI is new-ish, but I’m nonetheless surprised that competitions haven’t tossed something about AI into the long list of legalese to cover themselves in the event of, well, exactly what happened in this year’s Sony World Photography Awards.

That said, a quick look at the rules at the bottom of this page shows that there are some rules that someone could reasonably apply to AI-generated images, even though AI isn’t expressly mentioned.

4.1.1 You are the sole owner and author of each Entry

4.1.6 Each Entry does not infringe upon the copyrights, trademarks, contract rights, or any other intellectual property rights of any third person or entity, or violate any person’s rights of privacy or publicity…

AI models, apart from Adobe Firefly, are built on stolen images — they’re trained using someone else’s photos without their explicit permission. While the precise assembly of the group of pixels comprising an AI-generated image may be wholly novel, the information that led to the creation of that content isn’t — it was someone else’s work, either grabbed from the public domain or outright stolen from the original creator. You may not see the family tree of unoriginality and theft in the final AI-generated image, but it’s there, hiding just beneath the surface.

I contend that an AI-generated image violates each rule above. I don’t believe the person who makes an image in Midjourney, for example, is the sole owner and author of the picture. I also think that, at least in many cases, the synthesized image violates copyright. If something is built using stolen parts, it’s not much of a leap to say that the very existence of the creation represents theft. At the very least, AI-generated art has no legal protection, at least not yet. You can’t currently copyright AI-generated art, implying a lack of creative ownership.

However, these rules aren’t sufficient to deal with AI-generated imagery because they occupy a gray area and don’t explicitly mention AI.

Fine Art Photography Awards: An AI Controversy

The 2023 Sony World Photography Awards may be the first major photo contest to be propelled into the public eye, but it’s not the first significant photo contest to be embroiled in an AI controversy.

Another prestigious photo competition, the Fine Art Photography Awards, has been fighting (smaller) AI fires since it announced its winners earlier this month. However, the fight has been chiefly contained, never erupting into a full-scale media frenzy.

Photographer Cheraine Collette, who never replied to PetaPixel’s request for comment, won the “Fine Art Photographer of the Year, Professional Category” prize at the ninth annual Fine Art Photography Awards with her photo series, Exquisite Beauty.

The series celebrates the stories of “The exquisite beauty and strength” of the roughly 1-in-20,000 African people born with albinism. Some individuals are celebrated, while others are ostracized. In both extremes, the lives of many albino Africans are fundamentally different from their peers.

Telling this story is an admirable objective, and the photo series is impressive and eye-catching. However, some people have questioned the authenticity of Collette’s winning images. The skepticism surrounding Collette’s winning images was immediate and boisterous.

The Fine Art Photography Awards weighed in quickly, commenting on its Instagram post announcing Collette’s victory:

“Dear participants and debaters, we are watching the discussion that has been going on since the publication of the competition results with great interest. We will not refer here to the results themselves, which do not violate our rules and were chosen after a fair vote by the judges.”

“At the same time, we understand the concerns of the community, and we are also looking at AI technology, which seems to be the next step in the digital revolution and, like any such tool, carries both risks and opportunities for creators. Therefore, we decided to add additional verification of winners in subsequent editions of our event. They may be asked to provide RAW files if there is any doubt about the creative process behind the image. These rules will appear soon in our terms and conditions.”

“At the same time, we would like to thank everyone for an interesting discussion, we look forward to the future of photography and digital art!”

Although Collette didn’t respond to PetaPixel’s request for comment, she did add her comment on the legitimacy of her victory on that same Instagram post:

“These portraits are all photographed by me. Composed of different photographs I’ve created, like I’ve always done for almost a decade. First of all, thank you Fine Art Photography Awards for the amazing award! It’s a dream come true! I’ve had a best friend with albinism for over seven years and I’ve experienced a lot of struggles she faced. That’s why I wanted to create a series on this subject. It’s heartwarming that this new series received incredibly positive feedback so far. Nowadays with AI getting more realistic by the day, apparently, everything seems AI-generated.”

What’s the Truth?

I can see the arguments both ways. However, it appears I’m in the minority based on the Instagram post announcing Collette’s win.

One commenter says, “The artist has maintained the pictures are created from real shots of people, but real people have irises the correct shape and they don’t have four fingers. So, I’m done, I tried to be as open as possible to this. I feel the only way to disprove everyone’s concerns is to just name and tag the models, that’s easy and quick to do if they are real people.”

Someone else adds, “AI is not photography. Rather, it steals from actual photographers to attempt to get better. These images are clearly AI.”

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI

“In one of the other images from this set, the model has four fingers. None of them look entirely real, but this should be a dead giveaway. Not real,” another commenter writes.

Other people have demanded to see RAW image files and want the models tagged to prove they are real.

That demand skirts dangerously close to a situation where someone “with nothing to hide” is expected to answer all critics and prove that they’re not lying. If that situation devolves, as it frequently does, into one where someone refusing to submit proof to refute a claim is itself treated as evidence that an allegation is true. That is not how it should work.

A protected source tells PetaPixel that the “truth” is “actually worse” than Collette using AI to generate her images. As tempting as it is to speculate about what “actually worse” could entail, this isn’t the arena to do so.

Cheraine Collette satisfied the Fine Art Photography Awards’ concerns, if they had any, and won the award. As far as her prize goes, that’s the end of the story.

We’ve Entered Uncharted Territory, and Nobody is Prepared

To Collette’s credit, her response, if not necessarily convincing, is at least interesting. I want to pinpoint this part of what Collette wrote on Instagram: “Nowadays with AI getting more realistic by the day, apparently, everything seems AI-generated.”

I think this gets to the crux of the issue. Once a big competition is fooled, like the Sony World Photography Awards appear to have been, the public’s trust not just in a specific contest is shaken, but people are less trustworthy of photography itself.

This theme of mistrust isn’t new. Photoshop is really powerful and has been used to deceive viewers for a long time. Before the digital age, photographers still heavily manipulated images.

In many cases, such as with fine art photography, there isn’t anything wrong with manipulating an image.

However, AI somehow feels different. To many photographers, myself included, something is jarring and gross about an AI-generated image being passed off as authentic photography.

It concerns me that AI has advanced to the point where someone may present an image to me, claiming it’s a photograph, and I may be unable to tell if they’re lying. It makes me question my abilities as a photographer, which is an uncomfortable feeling.

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI

For example, Collette’s images seem obviously AI to some and not-so-obviously fake to others, like me. The fact that the pictures are so polarizing is concerning in and of itself. Whether Collette’s photos utilized AI at all or are outright entirely generated by AI is beside the point — the fact that there’s active debate about them is damaging enough to the legitimacy of the Fine Art Photography Awards and photo contests at large.

Lying and misrepresentation are undoubtedly wrong. But what I’m beginning to realize is perhaps even worse than being deceived on occasion and suffering a blow to my ego in the process is that I now find myself viewing all photography with a skeptical eye. It’s often said that people “see what they want to see,” but I’d argue that it’s even easier, and much more harmful, to see what you fear most.

The ability for photographers to bypass rules and fairness using AI technology has rendered all photography a bit less trustworthy, and that genuinely devastates me. It is painful to think that I might forever view the work of others through doubt-tinted glasses.

What Can Contests Do?

The Sony World Photography Awards’ response, or lack thereof, is problematic. At this point, I remain unconvinced that Sony isn’t just treating the Eldagsen situation as a one-off and trying to move past it without fundamentally shifting how they judge entries and handle questionable images.

On the other hand, the Fine Art Photography Awards, while unwilling to explain much about Collette’s winning photo series, has announced that subsequent editions of the contest will have rules in place that require photographers to be willing and able to submit RAW image files for inspection in cases where the judges aren’t sure about the provenance of an image.

Clipped Highlights - Photo Contests Are Unprepared for AI

That’s a good approach but perhaps insufficient. Someone could still fake their way through that process but enacting any roadblock to an AI image winning an award is a step in the right direction, especially one that’s easy for genuine photographers to satisfy, should the issue arise. It’s far better than throwing one’s hands in the air and saying, “I give up!”

A comment on Instagram referenced something else that deserves consideration, making special categories for AI-generated and AI-assisted photography. If you can’t outright prevent AI artists from entering work in photography competitions, giving them a place to play may prevent them from entering categories in which they don’t belong.

By the way, I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with AI technology, nor do I think there’s no place for it in art. Photographers and other artists have long utilized advancing technology to tell their stories better and evoke emotions in viewers.

I also think that artists using AI have artistic talent. Truly exceptional work still, at least for now, requires more than throwing a prompt into a generative AI model.

The problem is that when all but a few bad actors compete in good faith on equal footing, and a wolf enters in sheep’s clothing, it does a disservice to fellow competitors, photo competitions, and perhaps most damningly, the institution of photography itself.

Is requiring RAW images or giving AI artists their own categories removing water from a sinking boat using a sieve? Perhaps. But something must be done, and quickly, because the option for photo contests to twiddle their thumbs and wait for AI to “blow over” or become a bigger problem has come and gone.

Where do We Go from Here?

I’m not trying to attack the World Photography Organization, the Sony World Photography Awards, the Fine Art Photography Awards, or any photographers I’ve mentioned. But you can’t un-ring a bell, and AI hasn’t just rung the bell; the AI-generated bellringer is creating an immense, unending racket.

Photo contests must find a way to quiet the noise — or at least acknowledge it — before it’s too late. We’re rapidly approaching a point of no return, where photo contests and their winners are no longer given the respect and reverence they deserve.

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

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