Artist refuses prestigious award after revealing winning photograph was AI-generated

Boris Eldagsen said he submitted the AI entry as a test to 'find a weak spot' in the marking criteria of photography competitions, as Rachel Townsend reports

A German photographer has admitted to being a "cheeky monkey" after refusing to accept a prestigious award for an image he later revealed to judges was entirely AI-generated.

Boris Eldagsen had won in the creative open category at last week's Sony World Photography Awards, held at Somerset House in London, for his entry titled Pseudomnesia: The Electrician, a black and white portrait depicting two 1940s-styled women.

But the artist soon released a statement on his website explaining he had applied as a "cheeky monkey" and that the "photograph" was created using artificial intelligence.

"I applied... to find out, if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not," Mr Eldagsen said.

"We, the photo world, need an open discussion. A discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not," he continued.

"Is the umbrella of photography large enough to invite AI images to enter – or would this be a mistake?"

With his refusal of the award, the photographer said he hoped to "speed up this debate" on the use of AI in the industry.

Mr Eldagsen studied photography and visual arts at the Art Academy of Mainz, conceptual art and intermedia at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, and fine art at the Sarojini Naidu School of Arts and Communication in Hyderabad.

He said his stunt marked a “historic moment” as it was the first time an AI image had won at a prestigious international photography competition.

He added: “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.”

Mr Eldagsen rounded off the statement with a suggestion that the prize be donated to a photography festival in Odesa, Ukraine.

A spokesperson for the World Photography Organisation said Mr Eldagsen had confirmed the “co-creation” of the image using AI to them before he was announced as the winner.

“In our correspondence, he explained how following ‘two decades of photography, my artistic focus has shifted more to exploring creative possibilities of AI generators’ and further emphasising the image heavily relies on his ‘wealth of photographic knowledge’.

"As per the rules of the competition, the photographers provide the warranties of their entry.

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

"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.

Boris Eldagsen said of his winning entry: "How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated?" Credit: Boris Eldagsen

“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.

"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.

“We recognise the importance of this subject and its impact on image-making today. We look forward to further exploring this topic via our various channels and programmes and welcome the conversation around it."

What is artificial intelligence?

Simply, AI works to simulate human intelligence through the use of machines or more often computer systems.

Technological advancements have bolstered the capabilities of AI, and the world now faces a series of ethical, social, and industry-specific implications as a result of its rise.

Infamous chatbot ChatGPT, driverless cars, and song-writing software are widely-known examples of AI and its success in everyday life.

An AI-generated track using Drake's vocals recently went viral on social media. Credit: AP

However, experts have expressed concern about its use in certain spheres, like the circulation of "deep fakes," where media has been digitally manipulated to replace one person's likeness with that of another.

Universal Music Group has recently had to respond to a "fake Drake" track created using AI-generated Drake vocals after the tune went viral on social media.

“UMG’s success has been, in part, due to embracing new technology and putting it to work for our artists–as we have been doing with our own innovation around AI for some time already."

“With that said, however, the training of generative AI using our artists’ music (which represents both a breach of our agreements and a violation of copyright law) as well as the availability of infringing content created with generative AI on DSPs, begs the question as to which side of history all stakeholders in the music ecosystem want to be on: the side of artists, fans and human creative expression, or on the side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation."

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