How a Real Photo of a Flamingo Snuck Into—and Won—an A.I. Art Competition

The photographer entered the image into a contest’s artificial intelligence category to “prove that human-made content has not lost its relevance”

Photographer Miles Astray shot this image of a flamingo scratching itself with its beak on a beach in Aruba. Miles Astray

After an image of a headless flamingo placed in an international competition for A.I.-generated photography, its creator revealed his secret to success: The photo was real.

Artist Miles Astray (a pseudonym) snapped the image in Aruba after waking up at the break of dawn to visit a beach populated by flamingos. When he captured one of the birds contorting its long neck to scratch itself with its beak, the resulting image resembled a ball of pink feathers on legs.

Astray made only minimal adjustments to the photo. “I don’t process my images much and usually only to correct whatever the camera didn’t capture authentically,” he tells Forbes’ Leslie Katz. “I like to show the world as is.”

The flamingo didn’t look real: Because of the angle, it appeared to be headless. Such depictions of “wonky anatomy” have become trademarks of A.I.-generated images, as CNN’s Jacqui Palumbo writes. After examining the photo, Astray had an idea.

He submitted the image to the 1839 Awards’ Color Photography Contest—judged by jurors from Christie’s, Getty Images, the New York Times and other high-profile organizations—in the A.I. category.

“After seeing recent instances of A.I.-generated imagery outshining actual photos in competitions, it occurred to me that I could twist this story inside down and upside out the way only a human could and would, by submitting a real photo into an A.I. competition,” writes the artist on his website. “My work, F L A M I N G O N E, was the perfect candidate because it’s a surreal and almost unimaginable shot, and yet completely natural.”

To Astray’s surprise, F L A M I N G O N E won third place in the 1839 Awards’ A.I. category, as well as the People’s Vote award. The photographer then came clean, telling the contest’s organizers about the true origins of the image, which he also wrote about on social media.

Citing the upheaval A.I.-generated art has already caused, Astray wrote that he entered his photo “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.”

Contest officials promptly disqualified F L A M I N G O N E and awarded third place to another image. Still, they say they appreciate Astray’s message.

“We agree that it is an important, relevant and timely statement,” Lily Fierman, director and co-founder of Creative Resource Collective, which runs the contest, tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar. “But we don’t want to prevent other artists from their shot at winning in the A.I. category.”

Fierman has “no hard feelings,” as she tells CNN. In fact, her team plans to collaborate with Astray to publish a discussion about A.I.-generated images. “We hope this will raise awareness (and send a message of hope) to other photographers who are worried about A.I.,” she adds.

Astray didn’t photograph the flamingo with A.I. in mind. Still, he had been thinking about pulling a stunt like this for some time, “more subconsciously than consciously,” he tells CNN. “When I saw this picture, [the idea] surfaced. It is simply the perfect shot for this because the scene is so unreal, and for such a simple, natural reason: a flamingo scratching its belly.”

The photographer did have reservations about lying to the contest’s judges. However, as he writes on his website, he hoped his commentary would outweigh “the ethical implications of deceiving the viewer”—which is ironic, he adds, “because that is what A.I. does.”

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