Sony World Photography Awards recently published the winners and shortlists of its Open competition. The photos are absolutely stunning, but there’s just one problem – the Creative category winner isn’t a photo at all. The winning image resembles a portrait photo from the 1940s, with a characteristic vintage, nostalgic feel. But on a closer look, you can spot the weird hands – one of the biggest weaknesses of text-to-image generators.
This case sparked some serious debate in the photo community. It also made me think about AI and its place in photography. Should AI-generated art enter and win photography contests? Is it fair? Are there legal issues? I wanted to discuss all of this and more in this article.
[Related reading: Why AI is a threat to the photography industry]
The winner of the Creative category of this year’s Sony World Photography Awards is Boris Eldagsen with his AI-generated image PSEUDOMNESIA | The Electrician. To be clear, Boris is a photographer with over two decades of medium experience, so he knows his craft. Also, he fully disclosed that it was an AI image he submitted to SWPA, and he didn’t try to pass it as photography.
“I have been photographing since 1989, been a photomedia artist since 2000. After two decades of photography, my artistic focus has shifted to exploring the creative possibilities of AI generators.
The work SWPA has chosen is the result of a complex interplay of prompt engineering, inpainting and outpainting that draws on my wealth of photographic knowledge. For me, working with AI image generators is a co-creation, in which I am the director. 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. The more you create such a workflow and define parameters, the higher your creative part becomes.”
It’s worth noting that Boris explained his process behind this image before the winners were selected. This means his win wasn’t the jury’s oversight but a conscious decision.
Previous cases of AI-generated images winning photo contests
As you might already know, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. The first time (that we know of) was in September 2022, which sparked an outrage in the photo community. Then it happened again earlier this year, but it turned out that it was a marketing stunt.
Other than public outrage, AI-generated images winning photography contests can lead to a series of other issues.
First and foremost, cases like this cancel out the copyright policy of all photography contests. When you enter your image into any contest, your entry must not contain any copyrighted material owned by third parties.” And in the case of AI-generated images, this is a major grey area.
On the one hand, text-to-image generators like Midjourney create images based on everything they learned by training. And of course, they learned from photos other people took. They don’t generate a direct composite of other people’s photos. However, they still rely on them for the result – and we could debate if this is okay regarding “copyrighted material owned by third parties.”
On the other hand, there’s the issue of protecting your own AI-generated work. According to the US government, this type of work doesn’t fall under copyright protection. This means that anyone can use your image as they please, and you won’t get compensated.
Lack of clear guidelines
As Profi Foto notes, SWPA’s FAQ is silent regarding the submission of AI-generated images to the contest. They’re neither banned nor encouraged; they’re not even mentioned. This leaves much room for doubt and uncertainties, and it can also be one of the causes of the drop in photographers’ motivation.
Photographers’ motivation issues
I’ve used Midjourney myself since I like keeping up to date with new technologies. This led me to some Facebook groups dedicated to text-to-image generators, and I’ve seen growing disappointment with how it affects photography. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish AI images from photos, making photographers lose motivation to share their work and submit it to contests. I am seeing growing apathy on the one hand and growing frustration and worry on the other. And I don’t like either.
Does AI have a place in photography contests?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I always circle back to the same answer. In short, my answer is no. I’ve recently seen a bunch of articles and social media posts saying that “AI is not photography, and it never will be,” and my thought was always, “Well, thanks, Captain Obvious.” However, this doesn’t seem to be that obvious to contest judges, regardless of whether it’s SWPA or another competition.
To me, it’s really that obvious – an AI-generated image is not a photo. Sure, it was based on a gazillion photos that text-to-image generators used to feed their algorithm, but it’s still not photography. Even if you spent hours searching for the perfect prompt – nope, it’s still not photography.
In the “Creative” categories of photo contests, photographers submit photos they might have heavily edited and composited – but they still took them. As I mentioned above, your creations mustn’t contain any copyrighted material owned by a third party, so it’s still your photo you’re submitting – you just got creative with it.
As I mentioned, I play with text-to-image generators (especially Midjourney), and it’s really fun. I even found it therapeutical in some cases, but that’s the topic for another day. So, I’m not trying to demonize AI image generators. I’m aware that they’re here to stay, so is there a way to incorporate the images they render into contests?
I think so. If we completely disregard the legal grey area for now, I think our AI creations should get a place to be displayed and awarded. There could be separate categories of photo contests dedicated to AI work. So, not the “Creative” category of the photography contest but a completely separate category. Also, the growing popularity of Midjourney and other AI tools opens room for new competitions that will be dedicated to AI-generated work only.
I just don’t think AI-generated work belongs within any photographic category because, as Captains Obvious of the Internet say: AI is not photography.
What do you think? Should AI work win photography contests? Should it be submitted in the first place, even in the “Creative” category?