German artist refuses award after his AI image wins prestigious photography prize

The photo has since been stripped from the show and competition website.

Boris Eldagsen

There's some controversy in the photography world as an AI-generated image won a major prize at a prestigious competition, PetaPixel has reported. An piece called The Electrician by Boris Eldagsen took first prize in the Creative category at the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards — despite not being taken by a camera. Eldagsen subsequently refused the award, saying "AI is not photography. I applied [...] to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not."

Eldagsen's image is part of a series called PSEUDOMNESIA: Fake Memories, designed to evoke a photographic style of the 1940s. However, they are in reality "fake memories of a past, that never existed, that no one photographed. These images were imagined by language and re-edited more between 20 to 40 times through AI image generators, combining ‘inpainting’, ‘outpainting’, and ‘prompt whispering’ techniques."

In a blog, Eldagsen explained that he used his experience as a photographer to create the prize-winning image, acting as a director of the process with the AI generators as "co-creators." Although the work is inspired by photography, he said that the point of the submission is that it is not photography. "Participating in open calls, I want to speed up the process of the Award organizers to become aware of this difference and create separate competitions for AI-generated images," he said.

Eldagsen subsequently declined 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 wrote. “How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it? AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.”

Shortly thereafter, the photo was stripped from the show and competition website and organizers have yet to comment on the matter. Eldagsen actually traveled to London to attend the ceremony and even got up on stage (uninvited) to read a statement in person.

It's not clear if the organizers knew the work was AI-generated or not (Eldagsen said he told them it was). In any case, rather than shrinking from the situation, they should be embracing it. AI-generated art has entered the culture in a huge way over the past year, with AI winning both photo and art competitions over the past few months. Eldagsen's piece is bound to create conversations about how to handle it, particularly when it encroaches into traditional mediums.

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