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AI image wins at Sony World Photography Awards

The Sony World Photography Awards (SWPA) has quietly removed the Creative category winner after the entrant, Boris Eldagsen, admitted to using AI to generate the image and declined the prize.

Boris Eldagsen used an AI image generator to make this picture. No one, including us, noticed it was AI, although take a look at those spindly AI fingers! The original caption: ‘haunting black-and-white portrait of two women from different generations, reminiscent of the visual language of 1940s family portraits. From the series “Pseudomnesia”.’Photo: Boris Eldagsen.

Eldagsen entered his now-disqualified award-winning image, The Electrician, into the contest without disclosing the usage of AI. His aim, beyond perhaps generating publicity, is to ‘find out if the competitions are prepared for AI images’.

They are not,’ he writes on his blog. ‘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.’

When the organisers contacted Eldagsen to inform him of the win prior to the announcement, he claims to have sent them a link to his Instagram account and website, where he’s transparent about using AI to create ‘synthetic images’. He presumed the organisers would discover the truth, although no one bothered to check – which seems like the minimal due diligence such a prestigious photo contest should take.

Here’s an excerpt from an in-depth interview with German photo publication, ReVue:

‘Then I said: Beware! If you had looked at all the things I’ve sent you, everything would have been clear, but I now feel the need to re-emphasise that the image was created using artificial intelligence. I did compete with photographs at the Sony World Photography Awards for several years, but without much success. Now I have used my photographic knowledge from 30 years of experience to generate images instead.

I’ve been doing my experiments for more than a year, a kind of stress test for Artificial Intelligence, and if you come to the conclusion that you don’t want that, we’ll give a prize to someone else, it would be okay for me. But if you’d say we want to use this as an opportunity to think into the future, then I’d be happy, and would offer myself as a conversation partner to discuss how festivals and competitions should prepare themselves for the current challenge. ‘

Interviewer: And their response was?

My offer to discuss the matter was not accepted. On the day of the press release I have received a lot of enquiries and the agency CREO, which organises the award, contacted me via email. I sent them a statement, which they did not use. Instead, they communicated a generic response that said something along the lines of «we support the dynamics of photography and artistic freedom». So they weren’t actually interested at all in a discussion. I followed up again this week and was told, well, we have interviews on our blog from time to time, maybe we can do something there. I think this is a historic opportunity.

Photography has taken on a life of its own as a visual language. The visual language of AI, reminiscent of photography, will live on independently – separate from photography – but will in turn permeate photography pervasively, influencing it either directly or indirectly! A precise term, however, for the emerging AI-generated images is still lacking.

The ReVue article goes in deep into Eldagsen’s creative process, which combines AI and AI outpainting with photo editing processes like inpainting, as well as his views on AI, photography, and more. Worth a read.

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Eldagsen is a respected photo media artist who has lectured and shown work around the world, including in Australia at the Centre of Contemporary Photography, Australian Centre of Photography, Melbourne University, Photography Studies College, RMIT, and Monash University.

He highlights this is a watershed moment in photography, as its the the first AI generated image to win a prestigious international photography competition. More so than the so-called ‘historic’ moment claim by Sydney AI agency, Absolutely AI, which recently won DigiDirect’s measly Weekly Photo Competition.

Eldagsen has worked as a photo artist for 30 years, and throughout his career appears to be an artist who is willing to embrace various image-making processes and push boundaries. When AI image generator technology emerged in the last 12 months, Eldagsen began experimenting and AI imagery is now the focus of his work.

In a blog post about the SWPA award win, he acknowledges that ‘AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this. They are different entities. AI is not photography. Therefore I will not accept the award.’

According to Petapixel, Eldagsen even travelled from Berlin to the awards ceremony in London, walked on stage without invitation, hijacked the microphone and briefly spoke about what happened.

‘I expected to have a short moment on stage, as an open competition category winner,’ he said. ‘But I didn’t. They only asked the overall open competition winner on stage. Then they had dinner break. After dinner break before the 2nd part of the show started I went straight to the host. Told her that my image was selected as a winner for the creative category / open competition and if I can say something.

‘As she was taken by surprise I did it anyhow. That’s it. No response. The 2nd part started, the show must go on. I stayed until the end. No one from SWPA or CREO approached me, no one was interested in communicating with me.’

While SWPA hasn’t released a statement to acknowledge Eldagsen’s disqualification or refusal to accept the award, it has removed his picture from the printed exhibition and from the website.


  1. Gil Aegerter Gil Aegerter April 18, 2023

    The fingers on the left are the dead giveaway. Let’s start including negatives in contest entries!

  2. Margaret Brown Margaret Brown April 19, 2023

    What on Earth was wrong with the judges of this competition? Any knowledgeable photographer could easily spot all the places where the image was ‘unnatural’. Who selects these’ judges’ in the first place? What are their actual credentials? Eldagsen made no secret he’d used AI to ‘generate’ the image – so why was that not taken into account?
    Lots of questions – but few answers so far. It seems the competition ‘industry’ – and make no mistake it IS and industry – has plenty of soul-searching to do if it wants to gain any credibility in the future.

    • Keith Shipton Keith Shipton April 19, 2023

      Sony has spent millions promoting and building this competition over the past few years. Its PR machine is relentless in pumping out press releases and (most of) the photo media dutifully runs every one of them. Good filler. So, yes, given the budget for this PR program, a little more attention to detail and perhaps a higher calibre of judge is required. A shame because there are few photo competitions which, like this one, are free to enter, and with the Sony name behind it, you would expect a higher level of professionalism. But listening to Mt Eldagsen on ABC radio this week, it seems that sheer clerical carelessness led to the cock-up. Or otherwise it’s a conspiracy inspired by the lure of the extra publicity they are currently enjoying.

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