Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival to Showcase AI-Enhanced Images

Sydney’s Head On Photo Festival to Showcase AI-Enhanced Images

The Head On Photo Festival (“Head On”) in Sydney, dubbed ‘the biggest night in Australian photography’, has selected a series of AI-assisted images as part of Head On’s exhibition lineup.

Four AI-generated images will be up for display, three of which depict human subjects interacting against real-world backdrops. One of them shows two men in Russian military uniforms kissing in a town square with some passers-by watching in the background. Another shows a girl in a dress in a field of flowers, smiling at a camera placed from a low angle.

However, none of the scenarios portrayed in those images are real – they’re generated with the assistance of AI art tools. They were created by Amsterdam-based photographer and multimedia artist Toma Gerzha, who specialises in coming-of-age photography.

“I started working with AI back in 2021 with DALL-E. What attracted me to AI was the way I was able to use it to develop my documentary project about Eastern Europe that I was not able to finish back then because it was interrupted by the war,” Gerzha shared with The Chainsaw.

“With AI, [I found] a way to keep producing and not stop working on what I was passionate about… it was a good way for me to stay productive and experiment with new things,” she adds.

Head On: Choosing photos

Moshe Rozenveig, founder and festival director for Head On, told The Chainsaw the event adopted a “reverse” approach when it came to selecting photos from participants. This meant instead of opening up a new category dedicated to AI-generated photos, for example, the team at Head On sifted through hundreds of entries from photographers all around the world.

“We have four competition categories this year and we made it very clear that we do not accept solely AI-generated photos in those. AI is acceptable, but not photos that are generated with AI from scratch,” Rozenveig explained.

However, one exhibition does permit AI-assisted photos. The four photos by Gerzha were the only AI-assisted works that made the cut.

“We invite people to submit whatever they want… The idea is to have a conversation about photography. The festival is to celebrate photography in all its varieties,” Rozenveig said.

“So, we’ve got material that is very technical, some are art oriented, some by professionals, and some by non-professionals… we go through the materials and we choose accordingly.”

‘Promptography’ is flourishing 

Head On is not the first photography festival in Australia to showcase AI-generated images by human artists. In recent months, “promptography” – a portmanteau of “prompt” and “photography” – has come into the mainstream thanks to the AI boom this year.

From September to October, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Victoria created an inaugural category for AI-generated images. The biennale’s festival director told The Chainsaw at the time that the aim was to “join the ongoing conversation” about our relationship between photography and future technology like AI.

The winner of the biennale’s ‘AI photographs’ category, Annika Nordensköld from Sweden, was awarded $2,000 for her AI-generated image titled ‘Twin Sisters In Love’.

Image courtesy of Annika Nordensköld.

“None of these places, people or creatures exist in the physical realm… They were conjured from the sum of human experience in our deep collective well, as seen from my dreamboat with its flickering light.” Nordensköld explained in her winning statement.

However, as a photojournalist and commercial photographer for 40 years, Rozenveig confesses that he feels “uncomfortable” to categorise the AI-generated photos as such. 

“There’s the part of using AI to clean the background, change the colour balance, and so on… it’s really just another tool to make photographers’ lives easier. [But] the other part that people are scared of is when AI is used to create an image that does not exist… So, that’s when the question of authenticity comes around,” he notes. 

Gerzha, on the other hand, characterises the hesitance by some traditional photographers to take up AI and experiment with technology as a “generational” trait.

“If you tell your grandparents to use a computer and they are not familiar with it, it’s scary for them. A photographer who works in analog photography, for example, is not really into sharing those pictures on a [platform] like Instagram. So, they would be uncomfortable with AI as well,” she says.

Head On Festival: Photography Competition

The month-long festival will see over 110 exhibitions go live throughout Sydney from over 700 artists worldwide. Over $70,000 in prize money will also be awarded to winning photographers.

The Head On Photo Festival will run from November 10, 2023 to December 3, 2023. Tickets here.

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