Boris Eldagsen’s “The Electrician” (2022) generated by Dall-E 2 (image courtesy the artist)

Could you imagine losing an art competition to a robot? It’s happened before, and it happened again when Boris Eldagsen, a career photographer from Berlin, Germany, submitted an AI-generated image for the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards (SWPA) under the Creative category. Eldagsen claims that he disclosed to both Sony and the competition organizer, Creo Arts, that his work was made using AI, but neither would outright acknowledge it until he took matters into his own hands.

Eldagsen’s “The Electrician” (2022), inspired by the photos of Roger Ballen, was generated on Dall-E 2 last August using a combination of prompt-engineering (finagling the right text prompts to enter to get the most desirable generative results), inpainting, and outpainting.

When Eldagsen submitted “The Electrician” to three photography contests including the SWPA, he intended to test the judgment panels of each competition to see if they were discerning real photography from AI works.

“It was not about winning anything,” he told Hyperallergic. “I have been a photographer for 30 years before turning to AI and I’m very involved in the German scene in making workshops, lectures, and helping to draft up proposals for AI-related legislation.”

As it turns out, SWPA’s submission guidelines had no clauses about AI art and did not require RAW files from applicants or even finalists. Eldagsen said he received an email from SWPA in January asking for more information about his entry so he provided his social media accounts, where he shares many of his AI images.

“And then when in February they emailed saying ‘Congratulations, you have won the open competition’s Creative category,’ I told them it was AI,” Eldagsen said, proposing the idea of an open panel to acknowledge the proliferation of AI-generated work and the creation of a new category for AI-generated entries. According to Eldagsen, the World Photography Organisation contact responded that it was fine and continued to offer him the award even after he said it should be given to someone else.

In response to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment, a spokesperson for Creo Arts said, “We had various correspondences with Boris ahead of announcing him as the Creative category winner in the Open competition. Boris confirmed the ‘co-creation’ of this image using AI. He has now decided to decline his award. We respect his decision and have therefore removed him from the competition.”

The official press release announcing the 2023 SWPA winners was made public on March 14, after which the competition organizer, Creo Arts, reached out to Eldagsen via email with inquiries about his winning entry. The artist gave them the same response he gave to Sony, suggesting Creo use this submission as a jumping-off point for conversations about AI media, but Creo said there was no immediate platform for such a dialogue.

Eldagsen ultimately took to the stage at a London Hilton to publicly refuse the award. Apparently, they heard him loud and clear this time, as mentions of his name were quickly removed from SWPA’s website and his “photo” was quietly taken down from the exhibition in London’s Somerset House without any communication or explanations.

“I didn’t plan from the very beginning just to be an asshole or to be impolite and rude, but I have a sincere interest in how this will impact the photography scene and it needs to be talked about,” Eldagsen said, frustrated that he had to take it this far.

“And these awards are big in the photography world, but they don’t care, this is a business to them with a big name like Sony attached as a sponsor,” he added. “It could have been a big PR moment for them too, to introduce new regulations or elements to the awards, but they just aren’t talking about it.”

Editor’s note 4/17/23 5:48pm EDT: A spokesperson for the World Photography Organisation provided Hyperallergic with a statement in response to the incident. It is appended in its entirety below:

During our various exchanges with Boris Eldagsen ahead of announcing him as the Creative category winner in the Open competition on 14th March, he had confirmed the ‘co-creation’ of this image using AI. In our correspondence he explained how following ‘two decades of photography, my artistic focus has shifted more to exploring creative possibilities of AI generators’ and further emphasising the image heavily relies on his ‘wealth of photographic knowledge’. As per the rules of the competition, the photographers provide the warranties of their entry.

The Creative category of the Open competition welcomes various experimental approaches to image making from cyanotypes and rayographs to cutting-edge digital practices. 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 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.

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. 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.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...