The lessons of the AI ​​scandal at Sony’s World Photo Awards

Berlin photographer Boris Eldagsen has won the Sony World Photo Award. However, he does not want to accept the prize, which includes photo equipment from Sony. The picture with which he won was not created with a camera, but with an AI including post-processing. This is the message that has been read in the German and international media over the past few days.

Nico Ernst has been writing about IT topics and occasionally about music for over 20 years. Hardware, photography, economics and network politics are his favorite topics. Growing up with the ZX81, C64 and Atari VCS, he still can’t resist playing the occasional game.

How this came about is just as relevant for the world of photography, machine learning aka artificial intelligence, and the many photo competitions as the question: What is a photo actually? Because that’s what Eldagsen was mainly concerned with, as he says in an interview with Heise Online. In order to understand the scandal, you first have to know why Eldagsen is so good at using AI that even the jurors of a renowned competition mistake his work for an actual photograph. And what his motivation is.

Eldagsen lives from his pictures. For more than 20 years he has been working full-time as a photographer, in recent years also with AI. He is an expert in the German Photo Council, gives courses on the application of the technology, and is also active in the German Photographic Academy (DFA). So a dedicated professional – why would someone like that hack a competition system?

Because the Sony World Photo Awards terms and conditions only stipulated that “any device” may be used to create an image. Smartphones are explicitly mentioned in the competition FAQ, nothing is forbidden, especially no AI. “I wanted to try it,” says Eldagsen. He wanted to start a debate about the use of AI. Because the organizer of the award knew before the winners were announced that it was an AI image.

This is where, alongside Sony and Eldagsen, another player comes into play, namely the company hosting the competition. Here it is the British company Creo that takes over the entire process from the online platform to the award ceremony and exhibition. So this is one of the usual business ventures in the art business. And as such, it has an interest that while there is a lot of attention to the works, not that they may have been created past audience expectations.

How Boris Eldagsen managed to do this is described in a detailed chronology on his website. The short version: In December 2022, he submitted the image in the “Creative” open category. So it’s about extensive image design, as the winners of recent years have shown: a lot of editing, everything that digital technology can do – only so far apparently without AI. The work was shortlisted in January 2023, with Creo requesting a title in February. Eldagsen called the picture “The Electrician”, which comes from the series “Pseudomnesia”, a made-up word that can be translated as “false memory”. Even then, according to the photographer, nobody asked him how the picture was taken.

After all, he wanted to “try out” how far you can get with AI images. But don’t be completely fooled either, because: on March 2, 2023, Creo announced to Eldagsen that he had won. A day later, he explained to the organizer that the image was AI-generated, shared his work in the field — which Creo apparently hadn’t researched — and offered to be on a panel at the awards ceremony. Because the debate about the role of AI in photography and in general, art, was his goal. Creos only replied that Eldagsen could still keep the prize.

This was followed by a back and forth about the award ceremony and the panel discussion, which ultimately did not materialize. According to Eldagsen, Creo only offered to post a Q&A on his blog, which he didn’t do. It seems as if the organizer simply wanted to sweep the matter under the carpet. On March 14, 2023, Creo sent out a press release with the winners honoring Eldagsen without the background of the image.

It was only when the press inquiries to the photographer and Creo piled up that there were mutual statements, from which Eldagsen also quoted verbatim on his website, all without result. After 22 days of waiting for a public hearing, the photographer finally turned down the award. His image was removed from the competition’s online gallery without further explanation. As a reminder, Creo knew that the work was AI-generated and only mentioned it to journalists when asked.

This leaves only one conclusion: Creo and the client Sony absolutely wanted to have the most “beautiful”, impressive pictures for the competition. Also in the “Creative” category, where you should take a close look at the development. If there are no restrictions and “any device” can be used, you have to reckon with AI-generated images today. As in all other areas: If a certain technology is not prohibited for an application, it will be used.

The lessons are therefore quite simple: What can still be called a “photo”, especially in the context of a competition, must be defined in advance. Something like this: A system with a physically existing lens and light-sensitive material was used. As long as there is no widespread proof of authenticity that can be used by everyone, such as with CAI, every image must initially be regarded as artificial. Photographers who have also used a camera for an image must at least provide some kind of assurance that their image is a photograph. If the rules are broken, you will be excluded from the competition, including a public statement. This creates the social pressure that is unfortunately necessary in the unregulated AI field.

And of course a separate category must be created for AI images in competitions. Not having done so is Creo’s and Sony’s biggest mistake, aside from handling the image in question. AI isn’t going away anymore, until recently the high-end generator Midjourney was also freely accessible for free. Many other offers will follow. Not only press organs, but also competitions and the photo industry in general have to deal with it and cannot ignore it like Creo tried to do. Eldagsen’s picture also shows that art can be created with it. But now it needs new rules that need to be negotiated. It is a pity that an opportunity for a broad discussion within the framework of a competition that is respected worldwide was missed.

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