The winner of a major photography prize has rejected the award after revealing that the winning image was generated by AI.
In March this year, the World Photography Organisation announced the winners of the Sony World Photography Awards 2023. Among many stunning images that took home various prizes was “PSEUDOMNESIA: The Electricia” by German artist Boris Eldagsen, which won in the Creative category. A Sony press release described the image as “a haunting black-and-white portrait of two women from different generations, reminiscent of the visual language of 1940s family portraits.”
However, the image was generated by AI, and not a real photo (something that is obvious when you zoom in and look at the hands in the image, for example). On his personal website, Eldagsen revealed the truth and refused the award.
“I applied as a cheeky monkey, to find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not,” he wrote. “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.”
Eldagsen wrote that he has been a photographer for 30 years and recently turned to AI as part of his artistic practice. The winning image is “a complex interplay of prompt engineering, inpainting and outpainting that draws on my wealth of photographic knowledge,” he wrote.
A World Photography Organisation spokesperson told Motherboard that while the judges were aware that AI was used in creating the image, they were under the impression that it was a “co-creation” with AI and that Eldagsen “deliberately” misled them.
“The Creative category of the Open competition welcomes various experimental approaches to image making from cyanotypes and rayographs to cutting-edge digital practices,” the spokesperson said. “As such, following our correspondence with Boris and the warranties he provided, we felt that his entry fulfilled the criteria for this category, and we were supportive of his participation.” The organization even initially planned to run a Q&A with Eldagsen, but has since “suspended our activities” with the artist, the spokesperson said. The winning image has been removed from the competition’s website “in keeping with his wishes.”
"We recognise 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 programmes and welcome the conversation around it,” the spokesperson said. “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.”
This isn’t the first time that an AI-generated image won an artistic award. Last year, the top prize at the Colorado State Fair’s fine art competition went to an image that was generated using AI, sparking a controversy among artists over whether artificially-generated images should be given accolades over those created by human hands.
Update: This article was updated with comment from the World Photography Organisation.