The AI Images That Shook the Photography World in 2023

AI images 2023

In a recent opinion piece, The New York Times delcared that AI is the “future of photography.” Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen but it has undoubtedly been a big year for images generated by artificial intelligence.

The models have come on stronger and stronger, producing images that, in some cases, are indistinguishable from real pictures creating a new reality for the photography world. With that in mind, PetaPixel looked back on a momentous year for AI images.

The First Time an AI Image Wins a Photography Competition

After generative AI technology advanced rapidly in 2022, the staff here at PetaPixel suspected that an AI image would win a photography contest in 2023 — and it didn’t take long.

AI image of two surfers at sunrise
This AI image won a photography contest | Absolutely Ai

In February, an AI image won a photo contest run by an Australian electronics company. The company behind it confessed and called it “the world’s first AI-generated award-winning photograph.”

“We did it to prove that we’re at a turning point with artificially intelligent technology by passing the ultimate test,” said Absolutely Ai.

Respected Photojournalist Makes an AI Series

Distinguished photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown sparked controversy after releasing a “post-photography” series that was entirely generated by AI.

AI image of Cubans crossing the Gulf of Mexico
AI image by Michael Christopher Brown that depicts the perilous 90-mile journey from Havana to Florida that some Cubans attempt.

Brown was attempting to illustrate stories that are impossible to document with a camera and turned to AI for his project 90 Miles looking at the realities of Cubans attempting to cross the 90 miles of ocean that separate Havana from Florida.

The documentarian came under heavy criticism for his embrace of AI imagery with fans of his photography outraged; calling it “unethical”, his images “disturbing,” and threatening to unfollow his Instagram account.

AI Image Wins at the Sony World Photography Awards

Arguably the most significant AI image story of the year, Boris Eldagsen refused his prize from the Sony World Photography Awards after he revealed that his image that had won the Creative category was generated by AI.

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

Eldagsen actually crashed the ceremony, that took place in London in April, to announce his image THE ELECTRICIAN was AI-generated.

The Sony World Photography Awards released a statement saying: “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.”

Levi’s Use AI-Generated Models to ‘Increase Diversity’

In March, Levi’s announced it was AI-generating models to “increase diversity.”

AI Levi's Model

“We believe our models should reflect our consumers, which is why we’re continuing to diversify our human models in terms of size and body type, age and skin color,” the company said.

Needless to say, the announcement went down badly with photographers and models alike which led to Levi’s walking back in a statement to PetaPixel.

“This partnership and test are still in the very early stages, so we are still working out what this might look like. However, I’d like to emphasize this will not replace or impact photoshoots, this is purely supplemental to our current ways of working.”

Vogue Exhibition Shows AI Images Alongside Real Photos

The PhotoVogue festival this year exhibited AI images alongside real photos in a move that provoked criticism.

AI image exhibited by Vogue
AI-generated images from PhotoVogue’s exhibit. | Left image by Prateek Arora, right image by Filippo Venturi.

The festival held in Milan this month was entitled: What makes us human? Image in the age of AI. The exhibits investigated how AI is “changing our idea of photography.”

Trump Being Arrested

With the list of legal cases hanging over Donald Trump longer than the butcher’s line at Christmas, Elliot Higgins created a series of dramatic AI images showing Trump being jostled to the ground by a group of police officers.

Fake Trump Images

The outrageous set of pictures, posted in March, also showed Trump in a holding cell, the courtroom, and the prison yard.

Higgins used Midjourney to create the images and was promptly banned from the service. Although not many were fooled by the images (at least we hope not) they still went viral across the internet.

Instagram Accounts Masquerading as Photographers

In February, PetaPixel exclusively revealed that two Instagram accounts pretending to post photos taken at the hands of photographers were actually AI-generated.

Jos Avery admitted that his “photos” were fake after duping thousands of Instagram followers. Meanwhile, a photographer featured by Vogue, Emanuele Boffa, also admitted that he had been passing off AI images as real portraits he had taken.

AI image
High praise from one of Avery’s followers

When asked why he doesn’t mark the AI-generated images as such, Boffa replied: “James Cameron or Christopher Nolan and many other directors and cinematographers are continuously generating images with the help of computer graphics or AI. And I don’t think people care much, artificial intelligence, when used correctly, generates exactly what there is in the mind of the author.”

AI photos
Emanuele Boffa’s AI-generated images

AI-Generated Image of Pentagon Explosion Caused Markets to Dip

In case there was any doubt that AI images could have real-world ramifications, an AI-generated picture of an explosion outside the Pentagon caused a brief market crash in May.

pentagon explosion ai-generated image
This AI-generated image of an explosion near the Pentagon went viral.

The image went viral on X (then known as Twitter) and shows a huge cloud of black smoke on a grass lawn outside the Pentagon building in Washington D.C.

The incident prompted Twitter to expand its crowdsourced fact-checking program, Community Notes, to fight back against fake or misleading images.

The AI Image That Never Was

And finally, in a story that flipped the script, a real photo was disqualified from a competition after the judges accused it of being AI-generated — even though it wasn’t.

A real photo that was disqualified from a photo competition for being an AI image
Suzi Dougherty’s photo of her son Caspar with two mannequins that was deemed to be AI by a panel of judges.

Suzi Dougherty had captured a striking photo of her son with two smartly dressed mannequins in an intriguing pose while visiting a Gucci exhibition.

But she later discovered that her iPhone photo had been declared ineligible after the judging panel had grown suspicious. This story is a fantastic example of the effect AI has had on the photo industry in 2023.