In a baffling move that was certain to disappoint, PhotoVogue has stuck to its decision to feature AI-generated content alongside real photography in the latest edition of their festival. As usual, we at The Phoblographer are on the side of Photography as an Art made by humans. But this is far more alarming than we think. To recap on how alarming this is, Gizmodo Spain recently laid off their entire staff to replace them with AI. Sports Illustrated, too, was caught publishing articles made by AI. So with PhotoVogue, a branch of a long respected place for photographers, now adhering to and sticking to this decision, when will photographers be next? And more importantly, what can we do about it?
Paraphrasing writer Talia Lavin, we think things should stay human in this business — at the very least, as human as humanly possible.
The head of Global PhotoVogue, Alessia Glaviano, does not appear to share this point of view, even though she makes a bit of an effort to hide this behind an ultimately hollow statement on her Instagram page.
It’s crucial to differentiate the contexts in which photography is used. When it acts as a journalistic document, the act of bearing witness is paramount, and we must fiercely guard its integrity. This form of “witness photography,” a term I encountered in a conversation with @alexcartagenamex , beautifully encapsulates its essence. But when photography transitions into the realm of art, it’s a vehicle for one’s imagination. If we view photography as a canvas, where pixels replace paint, can we then use A.I. to manifest our most profound thoughts? Can we so swiftly denounce A.I.-generated images in art? Is art not about conveying our ideas, regardless of the medium?
While the expression “witness photography” by itself makes me cry a little bit, what interests me the most is the fact that Miss Glaviano seems to forget AI content doesn’t come out of nowhere but from millions of images sourced from artists who did not give their permission nor received any compensation. Thankfully, every coin has two sides, and the Festival —held in Milan from November 16 to 19th— came with a series of really fascinating lectures.
These lectures were collectively called, “What makes us human? Image in the age of AI,” and we’ve gone through some of them.
Table of Contents
Filippo Venturi and His “Broken Mirror”
Filippo Venturi is a documentary photographer with a degree in computer science and more than a few photography projects in his portfolio. He’s been wondering about what he calls syntography and its uses and effects in the real world, from the way Amnesty International used AI imagery to protect Colombian protesters to its influence in fashion and advertising. In the journalism ethics world, there’s a lot wrong with that — but Amnesty International isn’t an accredited journalistic publication.
In the end, despite all of this pondering, he decided to use AI to try and portray “the totalitarian dictatorship that characterizes North Korea,” a country he had already visited and captured with his camera.
For this purpose, he used “insects and spiders,” varying in size and number, to symbolize the submission of the North Korean citizens.
As he acknowledges, the creative process was largely done by the software itself, leaving him to select the final images, a compromise between what he wanted to achieve and what was offered by the machine.
This makes me think, is it your work if all you’ve got to offer is your veto capability?
Luckily, Filippo Venturi comes out at the end: “after several months fully immersed in this technology, I felt a strong need to return to photographing people.”
See his lecture here.
Mutale Nkonde, “Pretty Girls Look Like This”
Mutale Mkonde is the coauthor of the report “Racial Literacy In Tech” and founder of the non-profit AI For The People. In her lecture, she talks about how AI —and AI Products like Lensa— is affecting young people’s self-esteem and self-image.
This brings up various questions, of course: What is beauty? Why is its canon so Eurocentric? How is AI harming our mental health, regardless of gender? What policies should an app have during development to assure accuracy and avoid harming people?
She believes in the need for legal frameworks that include all of us, not just in images, but in the value those images bring.
See her lecture here.
Refik Anadol About “A.I., Photography, and Our Futures”
Refik Anadol has one of the most interesting lectures in the Festival. He touches how about most of the images we take today, using our cellphones, are nothing but algorithmic imaginations.
The sky turned orange because of the wildfires in Canada, and when you made a picture with your cellphone, the sky looked blue because the cell phone didn’t understand that a sky could be orange”.
Indeed this is true because of how much the processor does the work. Though at the same time, we can apply this idea to modern digital photography with things like in-camera lens corrections, firmware updates, and all.
In this case, the first victim is credibility. Our own phones do not capture what we see, so why should we believe in images we see on the Internet? In certain ways, photography has driven our behavior in the past two centuries; from the aid dispatched to the Dust Bowl thanks to Dorothea Lange to the withdrawal from Vietnam caused by the picture of Kim Phuc taken by Nick Ut, photography has managed to galvanize humanity into action again and again.
Right now, though, there are dozens of AI-generated images of the conflict in Gaza. Who does that serve? What’s the purpose? What’s the use of fake content about a real tragedy?
As Refik says, “the problem with AI isn’t the actual images, it’s the fact that any image may be AI, so you begin to be skeptical of all images,” which leads to inaction.
A Quick Overview
These are not all the lectures given in the festival, of course; you may go ahead and watch Addressing Ethical Dilemmas by Millie Tran, the talk on Multimedia Forensics by Paolo Bestagini, Navigating Truth on the age of AI by Daniele Moretti or the very interesting panel on “Envisioning Tomorrow: A.I. and the Future of Visual Narratives” starring Chiara Bardelli Nonino.
The fact that PhotoVogue is willing to exhibit AI content next to what is real photography is disappointing, yes – but the discussions and lectures they’ve held on the future of our craft are not to be lightly discarded.
I really, really recommend a watch.
Cover image by Jvdas Berra, Vogue Photographer, as published on his thoughts on AI imagery. Additional reporting was provided by Chris Gampat