Artist reveals that his prize-winning ‘photo’ is an AI creation

Categories: Canada

A German artist has turned down a prize from the Sony World Photography contest after revealing that his winning entry was not a photo at all, but a piece of art created using artificial intelligence.

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Boris Eldagsen’s entry, The Electrician, won the creative open category in the competition. It’s a black and white image of an older woman peering over the shoulder of a younger one, who is looking off to the side. The image looks scratched and weathered.

The Electrician was part of a series of images entitled Pseudomnesia, which the artist’s website says is a Latin term (it’s actually drawn from Greek) for “pseudo memory, a fake memory, such as a spurious recollection of events that never took place, as opposed to a memory that is merely inaccurate.”

Eldagsen released a statement upon winning the prize. “Thank you for selecting my image and making this a historic moment, as it is the first AI generated image to win in a prestigious international PHOTOGRAPHY competition,” he said. “How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it?”

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The 52-year-old added: “I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out, if the competitions are prepared or AI images to enter. They are not.”

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He said he believes that AI and photography should not compete with each other for an award such at the Sony prize. “AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept this award.”

But his statement also said a debate is needed into whether “the umbrella of photography” is large enough to include AI images, or whether that would be a mistake. “With my refusal of the award I hope to speed up this debate.”

According to Eldagsen’s website, images in Pseudomnesia “were imagined by language and re-edited … between 20 and 40 times through AI image generators, combining ‘inpainting,’ ‘outpainting’ and ‘prompt whispering’ techniques.” It adds: “Just as photography replaced painting in the reproduction of reality, AI will replace photography.”

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A spokesperson for the Sony event told the BBC that during discussions with Eldagsen, before he was announced as the winner, he had confirmed the piece was a “co-creation” using AI.

“The creative category of the open competition welcomes various experimental approaches to image-making, from cyanotypes and rayographs to cutting-edge digital practices,” they said. “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.”

German artist Boris Eldagsen at a Berlin art show where his work The Electrician is on display. Photo by Alex Schwander / Handout

They continued: “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.” The image no longer appears on the competition website.

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In recent weeks, photorealistic AI-generated images have amused and sometimes confused the public. They have included pictures of the Pope in a puffy white coat, Donald Trump being forcibly detained by police, and Elon Musk holding hands with Democratic representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Meanwhile, Eldagsen has followed up with another statement on his website, titled: “Stop saying nonsense!” It accuses the organizers of being disingenuous, and claims they were not aware of the AI-generated nature of his art until he informed them, after his win.

He has suggested that his prize, consisting of Sony digital imaging equipment, could be donated to a photography festival in Odessa, Ukraine.

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