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Over 100 Photographers Unite Against AI at World Press Photo

In an open letter to World Press Photo, more than 100 photographers, including prominent figures in the field, have sharply criticized the decision to include AI in the Open Format category. This strong reaction forced the management of the renowned competition to reconsider.

The news that the prestigious World Press Photo Award intended to allow the use of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in its Open Format category was immediately met with confusion and shock on the part of photojournalists.

The initiative was spearheaded by Daniel Etter, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and a third place at the World Press Photo award. He penned a letter, challenging this decision on the platform Medium. Published earlier this week, it was quickly endorsed by over 100 renowned photographers, many of them former World Press Photo Award winners, including Nanna Heitmann, David Burnett, Don McCullin, Ivor Prickett, John Moore, to name a few. The protest also garnered support among editors, curators, and directors of other festivals. The outcry was so significant that the organization had to reconsider its stance…

“I felt disrespected”

“As soon as I got the information, I immediately asked to be added to the list of signatories.” Like many of his peers, photographer Tomas van Houtryve, a member of the VII agency and winner of the second prize at World Press Photo in 2015, expressed his bewilderment and disappointment upon hearing the news: “It’s a competition in documentary photography. This sort of thing that’s not World Press Image: AI does not take photographs. We need clear guidelines to differentiate an AI-generated image from a photo; there must be absolutely no ambiguity. With this decision, our credibility as documentary photographers is lost.”

French photographer William Daniels, two World Press Photo awards, voiced a similar reaction: “The World Press is a benchmark in the industry; it has played a pivotal role in establishing post-production rules in photography. The award has the responsibility of setting clear standards in a profession that can be very unstable. Especially now, when our credibility is more fragile than ever due to social media and fake news… Journalists have never faced so many challenges.”

“Many of our colleagues take great risks to create photographs, many have lost their lives”

Daniel Etter, photographer

As Daniel Etter points out in his letter, World Press Photo put some of the greatest and is still considered the most prestigious photography prize in the world. “It has defined ethical standards that are crucial to uphold the integrity of our work. In times of viral disinformation, these standards are now more critical than ever. We need to defend them vigorously,” emphasizes the photographer. In an interview with Blind, he recalls that the profession of photojournalism is “fundamentally opposed to AI,” and admits he does not understand the decision made by the leadership: “Personally, I felt disrespected. The award I won felt less valuable because AI seems to me just devoid of meaning, devoid of a connexion to the real world.” Pausing for a moment, he added: “Many of our colleagues take great risks to create photographs, many have lost their lives. Over the past six weeks alone, 50 journalists were killed in the Israel-Gaza war.”

World Press Photo is backpedaling

In response to the strong reaction among the photography community, the World Press Photo organization quickly reversed its decision. Initially responding directly to the letter on Medium, they announced: “In response to this honest and thoughtful feedback, we have decided to change the rules for the Open Format category in our contest to exclude AI generated images.”

In a statement on social media, the organization confirmed its decision to exclude AI-generated images in the Open Format category, bringing it in line with other categories (Singles, Stories, and Long-Term Project). “We will update the official rules on our website in the coming days.” The statement goes on to cite Joumana El Zein Khoury, Executive Director of World Press Photo: “As photographers, you help people understand our shared world, which has never been more important. This work is fundamentally human, difficult, and often done at great personal risk. We are fully committed to supporting photojournalists and documentary photographers and bringing your stories to as many as we can. I am thankful for all your thoughts and messages. Open dialogue is crucial to navigating this changing landscape together.”

“The issue is not to reject AI outright, but to engage in a dialog about it, to acknowledge that it’s out there while highlighting the dangers it can pose to information, to our professions. Above all, we mustn’t legitimize it by allowing it to enter photography competitions”

William Daniels, photographer

A complete change of course. But what if the photojournalist community had remained silent? AI was poised to have a place in the competition. The profession will undoubtedly expect further guarantees and clear boundaries on the use of these tools. “The issue is not to reject AI outright, but to engage in a dialog about it, to acknowledge that it’s out there while highlighting the dangers it can pose to information, to our professions. Above all, we mustn’t legitimize it by allowing it to enter photography competitions,” explained William Daniels, and underscored the strong and rapid mobilization of the community, praising his colleague Etter’s initiative: “This is the positive aspect of social media: it can mobilize an entire profession in record time.” 

In a second letter announcing the reversal of World Press Photo’s decision, Etter emphasizes the need for the industry, already facing multiple crises, to maintain its collective cohesion: “Our work is getting increasingly harder. The changing media environment leads not only to less resources being spent on photography, but also less attention paid to it. But we do what we do, because we think it is important. The list showed that. It has immense value in itself. Or, as someone, wrote in our group chat : ‘We have so much working against us already — that it reminds me just how much I appreciate our shared values and the community that we have!’”

© Jonas Kako Panos, North and Central America
© Jonas Kako Panos, 2023 World Press Photo Contest winner North and Central America

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