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Guy rejects top photo prize after revealing snap was actually made using AI

Boris Eldagsen tells El Reg why he did it

Updated A photographer selected as a category winner of this year's international Sony Photography Awards has rejected the prize, saying his entry was actually generated using AI.

Last year, Boris Eldagsen began creating images for a collection he named Pseudomnesia, a combination of the old words pseudo and mnesia that essentially mean fake and memory. He entered an image from this collection into the creative open category in Sony's photo contest, a piece titled The Electrician in December 2022.

He said he did so without disclosing the snap had been produced with the help of text-to-image tools, since the rules allowed the use of "any device."


Convincing ... Eldagsen's gong-winning AI-created snap

Eldagsen described the images in Pseudomnesia as "imagined by language and re-edited more between 20 to 40 times through AI image generators, combining 'inpainting', 'outpainting' and 'prompt whispering' techniques."

Three months later, the organizers informed him he had won the creative category. Eldagsen said he only then admitted to the competition's organizers his picture had been generated using machine-learning software, and that he wanted to use the competition to launch a public discussion on how the technology was impacting photography.

Though photographers use all kinds of software applications in their work, to retouch, filter, crop, and so on, where do neural networks fit in that stack; are they acceptable tools; and where's the line in the sand that they cross if they are not acceptable? Interestingly enough, competitions may allow or even welcome the use of artificial intelligence, and it's photographers who are perhaps uncomfortable with the rise of this kind of computing.

"Right now for me, it is more important that the public debate I hoped for has become international and is in full speed," he told The Register. "I want to thank the photo community for this."

Eldagsen said he wants to differentiate human-made photography from realistic AI-generated images. "Can they be in one museum under the name of photography? Will this be good or bad for photography? It is complex, this is why we need to talk about it," he told us.

He claimed officials ignored his requests to discuss his situation, and kept him as a winner even after he disclosed the snap was made by computer. He confirmed to us he was rejecting the prize, which included $5,000, Sony camera gear, and a trip to the photography exhibition in London, because he felt it was wrong for AI to be recognized this way.

"Thank you for selecting my image and making this a historic moment," Eldagsen wrote on his website, "as it is the first AI generated image to win in a prestigious international [photography] competition. 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.

"I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not. We, the photo world, need an open discussion. A discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not. Is the umbrella of photography large enough to invite AI images to enter – or would this be a mistake? With my refusal of the award I hope to speed up this debate."

I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images

After Eldagsen's stunt became public, officials scrubbed his entry from the Sony Photography Awards and removed his image from the exhibition.

It's not the first time AI-generated artwork has won a competition. Last year, Jason Allen won the top prize of $300 for his Midjourney-made image at the Colorado State Fair's fine art competition, causing much controversy. ®

Updated to add

A spokesperson for the World Photography Organisation, which oversaw the contest, has been in touch to say it was aware his entry was made using AI software. The outfit also said it was willing to collaborate with Eldagsen, but walked away after he rejected the gong.

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

"We were looking forward to engaging in a more in-depth discussion on this topic and welcomed Boris’ wish for dialogue by preparing questions for a dedicated Q&A with him for our website.

"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 rep continued:

We recognize 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 programs, and welcome the conversation around it. While elements of AI practices are relevant in artistic contexts of image-making, the awards always have been and will continue to be a platform for championing the excellence and skill of photographers and artists working in the medium.

On his website, linked above, Eldagsen gave his timeline of events. He said he entered in December without providing details of the image's production, as the rules for the category allowed the use of "any device." He was shortlisted in January, and in early March, was privately told he had been picked as a winner.

Only then, he said, did he reveal to the organizers that he used machine-learning systems. The organizers told him he could keep the award. In mid-March, the winners were announced, leading to people asking questions about his image. Eldagsen said the contest's organizers only agreed to the Q&A after he badgered them about it.

And ultimately, he declined to accept the gong.

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