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Photography Awards Judges Need To Do Better

The Sony World Photography Awards is one of the more prestigious annual photography contests we’re familiar with. With widespread worldwide coverage for its winners, it’s an award that many professional and amateur photographers enter. Winning one or more of its category awards can be a shot in the arm for a photographer’s career. But one particular result in the recently announced Open Category Awards of the 2023 contest shocked me. It’s made me question the judging process and the future of photography contests in general. You might not seem alarmed by it now. Without a doubt, it could escalate out of control in the years to come.

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The 2023 Sony World Photography Awards Open competition was free to enter. There were 10 categories that entrants could choose from. One of the main criteria for entry into this category was that the images needed to be taken in 2022. From the possibly hundreds, if not thousands, of entries, fourteen images made it to the final shortlist of the Creative category of the Open competition.

A breakdown of the rules is available on the Open Category page. Let me run through a couple of them here that are pertinent to the topic of this piece:

I think the name of the contest itself clearly puts it out there that this is a photography contest at its core. Looking at most of the entries in the Creative category, one might be tempted to argue that they aren’t photography in the most traditional sense of the word. Undoubtedly there are elements of layering and possibly digital manipulation of photos. But all elements involved in the shortlist here appear to be composed of one or more photos. There seems to have been considerable effort to photograph each element and create the final output submitted.

German photo-media artist Boris Eldagsen was adjudged the Creative category winner in a press release that TPB received on March 14. He won it for his image “PSEUDOMNESIA | The Electrician, “a haunting black-and-white portrait of two women from different generations, reminiscent of the visual language of 1940s family portraits.” Undeniably, the winning image does evoke memories of photographs that I’ve seen of my grandparents in their heyday, as well as of my parents from a handful of decades ago.

Take a closer look at Boris’s winning image. Especially the skin texture (or lack of it) and the details in the fingers. This isn’t because this was taken on a very old camera or using a vintage lens. Boris Eldagsen himself has come out and stated after the winning result was announced that this isn’t a photograph at all. It’s an image generated by inputs he provided to the Open AI photo tools. I am shocked and surprised that the Sony World Photography Awards didn’t spot this. In an interview with the publication Talking Pictures, Boris states that he emailed the awards committee openly saying that his image wasn’t a photograph but an AI creation. When writing this article, he’s still listed as a winner on their page, almost 3 weeks after the announcement.

Boris released a statement on April 1 about his image, The Electrician winning the Creative section in the Open category at the Sony World Photography Awards. For anyone wondering if it was an April Fool’s joke, he came clean about the AI part of this image on March 14 in an Instagram post.

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. 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. The more you create such a workflow and define parameters, the higher your creative part becomes.

You can read his entire statement here.

In all fairness to Boris, he’s clearly shown that there is a problem here in the photography industry. For starters, most people have a tough time distinguishing AI-generated images from photographs (at least at first glance). In a few months, it will probably become even harder to determine critical differences unless scrutinized. With this intention, Boris has stated that he wants photography contest organizers to have separate categories for AI images. I appreciate him for wanting this distinction in photo contests. Yes, he entered an AI image into the competition, but it doesn’t seem he was out to defraud anyone. He wanted to highlight an issue that certainly needs a lot more attention from everyone.

Of course, the truth was bound to come out soon after the announcements. How was Boris’s image allowed to get this far in the contest? If anything, he’s clearly shown that even experienced photographers and art experts can be fooled. It’s essential to realize the key issue here.

Any photography awards contest with some credibility needs to have a specific set of steps to determine an image’s authenticity. For a worldwide competition of this scale, judges certainly can’t inspect each entry inch by inch at 100% magnification. Yet you’d think, being a contest of such repute, that the judging committee would have asked for the raw files from shortlisted photographers. This should be the minimum that should have been done before the winners were announced. Haven’t previous fiascos taught us that this is absolutely necessary by now? Had this been done, Boris’s entry would have been disqualified well in advance. This would then open up another spot for a worthy shortlist and winner.

I wish we had more clarity on the judging process for this year’s results. This has now shone an unwanted spotlight on the whole process, and rightly so, in my opinion. Because the question has clearly arisen over what steps were taken to ensure that entrants had the copyrights to their entries. Merely having them sign off a form isn’t enough. At least when it came to the final shortlisted entries, more should have been done.

I call my images “images”. They are synthetically produced, using “the photographic” as a visual language. They are not “photographs”.

I haven’t gone through the winners in the other categories so far, but this question is at the back of my mind. How many other entries aren’t photos in the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards? The onus is on the SWPA to clear this out and not rush to announce the overall winners. There’s already been a spate of AI-generated images winning photo contests this year, albeit in smaller contests. To allow an AI image to win the World Photography Awards is not something serious photographers would take lightly. Another key point is that this opens up the playing field for anyone to type a few words into an AI program and generate a potential winner.

Where’s the fairness in allowing such images to be entered into photography contests? That’s as bad as letting someone run a “paintbrush” action on a photo in Photoshop and printing that out on canvas as an entry to an art contest. Judging a prestigious contest is a privilege and not something that needs to be taken lightly. I’m very keen to see the official statement from the Sony World Photography Awards committee. In the event that more such AI entries made their way to the contest, it’ll be very interesting to see what they say.

The lead image is by Boris Eldagsen and is used with permission from the SWPA communications team.


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