Artist refuses photography award after revealing his picture was AI-generated

“THE ELECTRICIAN” by Boris Eldagsen Photo Edition Berlin - Boris Eldagsen

An entry into the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards has stirred up fresh controversy around the topic of AI-generated art.

German photographer Boris Eldagsen entered his piece “The Electrician” into the art contest. And wouldn’t you know it – he won 1st Prize in the Creative Category.

However, the winning image was actually generated by AI, using DALL-E 2. Eldagsen wanted to make a point and opted to turn down the prize, because his image wasn't a real photo.

He stated that he was looking to test if “competitions are prepared for AI images. They are not.”

“Participating in open calls, I want to speed up the process of the Award organizers to become aware of this difference and create separate competitions for AI-generated images,” said Eldagsen.

“AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography,” Eldagsen wrote on his website. “Therefore I will not accept the award.”

“With my refusal of the award, I hope to speed up this debate.”

His photograph, “The Electrician”, features two women in a grainy sepia tone that gives it a 1940s style. The work was created in collaboration with an AI used by Eldagsen, who refers to himself as a “photomedia artist” on his website.

"The Electrician" is part of a series by Eldagsen called "pseudomnesia," the Latin term for "fake memory." The images are "fake memories of a past, that never existed, that no-one photographed," created by putting them through AI image generators between 20 and 40 times, Eldagsen says on his website.

“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,” Eldagsen wrote on his website. “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.”

Boris Eldagsen next to image generated with DALL-E 2 in the process of creating The Electrician.Photo Edition Berlin - Boris Eldagsen

This comes at a time when AI image-generation sites such as DALL-E, Midjourney, and Stable Diffusion have boomed in popularity. In their prompts, users can ask the sites to create artwork in the style of a particular artist or images of events that never happened — leading to deepfake images or the editing of existing images.

Eldagsen’s win has been controversial, with photographers criticising the fact that an image created without any camera managed to take a top photography prize over actual photographers.

The World Photography Organization has so far remained silent on the matter.

An exhibition of the winners and shortlisted images from this year's Sony World Photography Awards takes place at Somerset House, London until 1 May 2023.