A photographer submitted a real photograph to a contest for AI-generated pictures, and won the competition, as the judges believed it to be digitally made. Upon learning that the photographer, Miles Astray, had not used AI to produce the piece, he was disqualified.

Astray’s winning picture, a photograph of a flamingo whose head appears to be bent into its body, took first place in the AI category of the People’s Vote Award at the 1839 Photography Awards.

This year, the judges had also given Astray’s photograph, titled F L A M I N G O N E, a third-place prize in the AI category. The juried prizes are decided by representatives from the New York Times, the auction house Christie’s, the publishing house Phaidon, and elsewhere.

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On his website, Astray wrote that he had deliberately submitted his photograph as a means to advocate for human-made pictures: “With AI-generated content remodelling the digital landscape rapidly while sparking an ever-fiercer debate about its implications for the future of content and the creators behind it – from creatives like artists, journalists, and graphic designers to employees in all sorts of industries – I entered this actual photo into the AI category of 1839 Awards to prove that human-made content has not lost its relevance, that Mother Nature and her human interpreters can still beat the machine, and that creativity and emotion are more than just a string of digits.”

Astray’s photograph was deleted from the contest’s website upon a review.

“Each category has distinct criteria that entrants’ images must meet,” the competition’s organizers told PetaPixel. “His submission did not meet the requirements for the AI-generated image category. We understand that was the point, but we don’t want to prevent other artists from their shot at winning in the AI category.”

Astray still treated the debacle as a victory, writing, “I hope that winning over both the jury and the public with this picture, was not just a win for me but for many creatives out there. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a win for Mother Nature herself because I think she’s got bigger things on her plate; who knows, maybe AI can help her with that, by computing climate change models and the likes.”

AI-generated art and photography contests have held a vexed relationship. In 2023 artist Boris Eldagsen won the World Photography Organization’s Sony World Photography Awards for a picture that had been created with the help of an AI generator. After that outcome, Eldagsen declined to accept the award, saying “AI images and photography should not compete with each other in an award like this.”