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An 'unreal' flamingo image won an AI award. The only catch? It's a real photograph

The flamingo appeared headless as it bent its neck to scratch itself with its beak. (Miles Astray via CNN Newsource) The flamingo appeared headless as it bent its neck to scratch itself with its beak. (Miles Astray via CNN Newsource)
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As AI-generated images have begun creeping into art and photography contests over the past two years, sometimes fooling jurors and provoking anxiety and anger among artists, the photographer Miles Astray decided it was time to turn the tides. In an AI category at the 1839 Awards’ Color Photography Contest, judged by industry leaders at Christie’s, Phaidon and the Centre Pompidou, Astray pulled off an act of feathery subterfuge, sneaking in an entry of a real photo of a flamingo he took while in Aruba.

Like AI images, which can bear hallmark signs of wonky anatomy, like too many teeth or fingers, the flamingo appeared headless as it bent its neck to scratch itself with its beak.

To Astray’s surprise, it won both third place in the category — and the People’s Vote award.

“To see it get shortlisted by the jury was a surprise in that it’s always a bit of a lottery in such big contest. There are just so many excellent pictures competing,” Astray told CNN over email. “After it got shortlisted… I thought I might really have a shot and started campaigning for people’s votes, but I had absolutely no idea how far or close I was to winning until the announcement.”

After the winners were revealed, the photographer notified the organization that runs the 1839 Awards, Creative Resource Collective, and took to social media to reveal his trickery.

“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 wrote. “There were ethical concerns, of course, so I was hoping that the jury and the audience would find that this jab at AI and its ethical implications outweighs the ethical implications of deceiving the viewer, which, of course, is ironic because that is what AI does.”

Astray was subsequently disqualified from the competition, with the director of Creative Resource Collective, Lily Fierman, explaining in a statement to CNN that “each category has distinct criteria that entrants’ images must meet… we don’t want to prevent other artists from their shot at winning in the AI category.”

Fierman said there’s “no hard feelings,” and that their team plans to work with Astray to publish a conversation around the state of AI-generated images, using his entry as a “jumping-off point.”

“We hope this will raise awareness (and send a message of hope) to other photographers who are worried about AI,” she added.

Creative Resource Collective did not comment on how their AI and non-AI photography categories are judged and vetted.

As for the flamingo, Astray emphasized it was a serendipitous moment, not one that he sought out.

“I was not actively looking for a picture that would work for this stunt,” he explained to CNN. “Rather, the idea had been roaming in some remote corner of my mind, more subconsciously than consciously I think, and when I saw this picture, it 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.”

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