Genuine iPhone photo rejected by photography contest for looking ‘too AI-ish’

18-year-old posing with two mannequins at a Gucci exhibition in Sydney
(Image credit: Suzi Dougherty)

Another Australian photo retailer has hit the headlines after it disqualified a genuine photo shot on an iPhone from its regular photography competition, with judges deciding that the surreal image looked “a little AI-ish”.

It’s the reversal of a story from earlier this year, when an-AI generated image won a photo contest in Australia after tricking judges with its authenticity. 

The human-created photo in question, which you can see above, was taken by Suzi Dougherty, and shows her son posing with two mannequins at a Gucci exhibition held at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Australia.

The panel of judges initially loved the photo, but after further discussion they wrote, “we can’t know for sure it is or isn’t (AI), but on the basis we're suspicious we can’t allow it in.”

Real issue

An interesting narrative around the image played out on Charing Cross Photo’s Instagram page. The judges made a virtue of valuing human creativity and photographic practice, and made what turned out to be an unwarranted example of Dougherty’s photo by publicly announcing its disqualification from the competition, declaring, “We want the images to come from YOUR real life experience, and not sourced from cyberspace.

“There is no way we can be completely sure the image submitted was made by AI but you really can’t ignore the gut instincts of four judges.”

18-year-old posing with two mannequins at a Gucci exhibition in Sydney

Suzi Dougherty's photo in full (Image credit: Suzi Dougherty)

Four days later the competition organizers shared that Dougherty had been in touch to say the photo was a real creation, and wrote, “It is a great play on what is real and not in our world indeed. Sadly for the entrant the timing was not great considering that AI is such a hot topic.”

Clearly that wasn’t an acceptable response for many in the photography community, who demanded an apology to the vilified photographer. Competition organizer Iain Anderson has since issued a full apology “born out of sincere contrition” and Dougherty, who appears more gracious and forgiving than many in the comments section, replied “I am happy to be part of a ‘mistake’ I am a big believer in making mistakes and what can be achieved through them.”

Who would host a photo contest now?

AI-generated images that look real; human-made images that can look surreal; this is a challenging and confusing time in the creative arts competition space, and I have sympathy with organizers that are running contests according to the conventions of simpler times. Who would host a photo contest now?

Sony World Photo contest prize winning image that was generated by AI

(Image credit: Boris Eldagsen)

Changes are needed that reflect the fact that AI-generated imaging is here to stay. Much of it comes down to clarity as to what is and isn’t accepted. Even the high-profile Sony World Photo competition awarded an AI generated image earlier this year (above) – but what wasn’t clearly communicated was that the organizers had foreknowledge of the use of AI in the creation of that image.

There's a cloud of confusion engulfing photo contests, and something has to be done. Not all competitions have to adhere to the same guidelines, and that’s also true regarding what is and isn’t acceptable with real photos; do they need to be unedited raw images, for example, or can they be edited and manipulated?

Some competitions may decide to exclude AI altogether; others could create a new and separate AI category, while others might accept images of all kinds. Right now, though, we need clarity on what is and isn’t acceptable – judges’ gut instincts aren't enough. Otherwise, another controversy is sure to hit the headlines soon.   

Timothy Coleman
Cameras editor

Tim is the Cameras editor at TechRadar. He has enjoyed more than 15 years in the photo video industry with most of those in the world of tech journalism. During his time as Deputy Technical Editor with Amateur Photographer, as a freelancer and consequently editor at Tech Radar, Tim has developed a deeply technical knowledge and practical experience with cameras, educating others through news, reviews and features. He’s also worked in video production for Studio 44 with clients including Canon, and volunteers his spare time to consult a non-profit, diverse stories team based in Nairobi. Tim is curious, a keen creative, avid footballer and runner, and moderate flat white drinker who has lived in Kenya and believes we have much to enjoy and learn from each other.