An artist who won an award at a world-renowned photography competition says the winning image was actually generated by AI.
German photographer Boris Eldagsen said that he wouldn’t be accepting the prize because his image “The Electrician” wasn’t a real photo. It had come top in the creative category in the open competition at the World Photography Organisation’s Sony World Photography Awards 2023.
“AI is not photography,” Eldagsen, who has been a photographer for around three decades, wrote on his website. “Therefore I will not accept the award.”
The 1940s-style black-and-white image shows a woman stood behind another with her hand on the other woman’s shoulders. Other hands appear to be adjusting the dress of the woman in the foreground. Both women’s gazes are averted.
Though the image looks photorealistic, there are some signs that it has been generated by AI, such as the position of some of the fingers, the appearance of some fingernails, and the shape of one of the women’s pupils. Her dress also appears to blend into her arm.
“It has all the flaws of AI, and it could have been spotted but it wasn’t,” Eldagsen told Insider, adding that he was surprised the image won. After hearing of his success in early March, he immediately told the competition’s organizers that the image was AI-generated, he said.
AI image-generation sites such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion have boomed in popularity over recent months. In their prompts, users can ask the sites to create artwork in the style of a particular artist or images of events that never happened — leading to deepfake images of former President Donald Trump being arrested going viral. Users can also ask the platforms to edit existing images.
Eldagsen told Insider that he generated the image in September using DALL-E 2 in a process he referred to as “promptography.”
“For me, working with AI image generators is a co-creation, in which I am the director,” he wrote on his website. “It is not about pressing a button – and done it is. It is about exploring the complexity of this process, starting with refining text prompts, then developing a complex workflow, and mixing various platforms and techniques.”
Eldagsen told Insider that he wanted to start a conversation around the relationship between AI and photography. Competition organizers should create separate categories for AI-generated art, which is becoming increasingly realistic, he said.
“Midjourney 5 really looks like photography,” he said.
“The Electrician” has since been removed from the Sony World Photography Awards 2023 and no longer features on the World Photography Organisation’s website or at the physical exhibition in London.
A spokesperson for CREO, the company behind the awards, told Insider that the category “The Electrician” won “welcomes various experimental approaches.”
“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,” the spokesperson continued, adding that the image was removed after Eldagsen declined the award.
“The Electrician” is part of a series by Eldagsen called “pseudomnesia,” the Latin term for “fake memory.” The images are “fake memories of a past, that never existed, that no-one photographed,” created by putting them through AI image generators between 20 and 40 times, Eldagsen says on his website.
“The photographic language of photography has now separated itself from the medium,” Eldagsen told Insider.