Berlin-based Boris Eldagsen won the creative open category at this year’s Sony World Photography Award with his entry “Pseudomnesia: The Electrician.”
The eerie black and white image shows two women from different generations – the older woman appearing to hang on to the younger woman from behind.
Organizers said they were made aware of some AI involvement, but said there had been “deliberate” attempts to mislead them.
Eldagsen said he hoped his actions would open up the conversation around the issue and lead to “separate competitions for AI-generated images.”
Eldagsen said in a statement shared on his website that he had been a “cheeky monkey” in a bid to open up the conversation around artificially generated images.
“Thank you for selecting my image and making this a historic moment, as it is the first AI generated image to win in a prestigous (sic) international PHOTOGRAPHY competition. How many of you knew or suspected that it was AI generated? Something about this doesn’t feel right, does it?”
He continued: “AI images and photography should not compete with eachother in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.”
He said he applied “as a cheeky monkey” to find out if competitions “are prepared for AI images to enter. They are not.”
‘Not about winning’
Eldagsen told CNN Tuesday: “It shows that at the moment the photographic world has been taken by surprise after this development that subtly you can create images that look like photography but you don’t need to have the skills and expertise of photographers.”
He said that AI had left many photographers feeling “threatened and afraid that they are going to lose their jobs which will happen.”
Eldagsen said his intention was not to create trouble, but to open up an important conversation.
“It was not about winning anything,” he said. “I was just making a test to see if they were aware – like a hacker who hacks a system not to exploit it, but to see if there are weaknesses.”
In further statements on his website, he said he had informed the organizers of AI involvement.
Organizers said that 2023 had seen the highest number of entries in the awards’ 16-year history. More than 415,000 images were entered across this year’s competitions, with more than 180,000 of them eligible for the professional categories.
Three finalists, as well as five to seven shortlisted photographers, were chosen in each category. The selected images were shot by photographers from more than 30 countries in locations ranging from an abandoned cement factory in China to a fish market in Somalia.
The World Photography Organisation, which runs the competition, told CNN in a statement Tuesday that, during the competition’s exchanges with Eldagsen ahead of announcing him as a category winner on March 14, he had confirmed the “co-creation” of this image using AI.
“The creative category of the open competition welcomes various experimental approaches to image making from cyanotypes and rayographs to cutting-edge digital practices,” organizers 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. Additionally, we were looking forward to engaging in a more in-depth discussion on this topic and welcomed Boris’ wish for dialogue by preparing questions for a dedicated Q&A with him for our website.
“As he [Eldagsen] has now decided to decline his award we have suspended our activities with him and in keeping with his wishes have removed him from the competition. Given his actions and subsequent statement noting his deliberate attempts at misleading us, and therefore invalidating the warranties he provided, we no longer feel we are able to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue with him.”
The statement said organizers recognize “the importance of this subject and its impact on image-making today.”
“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,” the World Photography Organisation added.
Top image: Boris Eldagsen’s AI-generated image titled ‘Pseudomnesia: The Electrician’ was submitted to the Sony World Photography Awards 2023 and won first prize in the creative open category.
CNN’s Oscar Holland contributed to this report.