Established in 2007 and organized by the World Photography Organisation, The Sony World Photography Awards are regarded as the most prestigious photography competitions around the globe. Every year, artists working in photography enter their pieces into the competition within its four categories: professional, open, student, and youth. Sony is committed to elevating the careers of up-and-coming artists, allowing for their entries to be displayed around the world. The competition also pledges to extend relationships to past winners to develop their careers in photography.
The 2023 Sony World Photography Awards took an unexpected turn when German artist Boris Eldagsen submitted his piece, titled Pseudomnesia: The Electrician to the competition's open category. The piece is a part of Eldagsen’s 2022 Pseudomnesia series. The series plays upon the concept of “pseudomnesia,” the Greek term ascribed to pseudo memory, or fake memories that never took place or are entirely inaccurate and fantastical. In creating the series, Eldagsen enlisted the assistance of AI image generators. According to Eldagsen’s website, “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.”
Pseudomnesia: The Electrician is a black-and-white photograph of two women from two different generations in an embrace. The woman in the background presses her face against the younger woman’s shoulder, while the latter looks past the audience with a serious expression. Though the photograph is intriguing, something feels off with the figures. The photograph takes an uncanny appearance as if it is truly a faux memory from a fabricated past.
However, despite the usage of AI image generators being explicitly stated on the artist’s website, the organizers of the awards told BBC News that they felt Eldagsen had misled them about the extent to which AI would be used in the creation of the image. Eldagsen confirmed to the event organizers prior to being announced as the winner that the piece was “co-created” using AI generators. Eldagsen confirms on his website that, when applying for the award in December 2022, he gave no additional information about how the piece was created, as the Sony World Photography Award guidelines allowed the usage of “any device.” Upon being notified that he had won the open category, Eldagsen responded:
“The links you requested earlier this year (webpage and Instagram, exhibition history) clearly show that after two decades of photography, my artistic focus has shifted more and more to exploring creative possibilities of AI generators […] Since I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings here, it is important for me to explain in this email the background of the image you have chosen in as much detail as possible. […] In Germany, I am active as […] AI expert in the “Deutscher Fotorat” to discuss the chances and risks of AI image generators. Perhaps Sony would be interested in taking up the topic for a panel discussion in this context.”
Eldagsen sent a statement to the organization, as well as a suggestion that they donate the award money to the Ukrainian photo festival in Odesa, but the press executives never responded.
After much debate in the photography world, the organization expressed that they would like to engage in a more in-depth discussion about Eldagsen’s entry, inviting him to conduct a Q&A on their website. However, due to the organization’s refusal to answer questions from Eldagsen, the press, and other photographers regarding the usage of AI in the winning entry, Eldagsen declined the award. Eldagsen’s statement reads that, after 30 years of photography, his focus has shifted to exploring the creative opportunities within AI image generation. Eldagsen describes his creative process as:
“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.”
Furthermore, Eldagesn states that AI and photography are different entities and should not be in competition with one another. AI is not photography, but, according to Eldagsen, “promtography,” a new term that relates to the production of an image using AI. According to Eldagsen, we should refer to art created using artificial intelligence as AI-generated images or promptography to be more truthful to the image’s production.
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