In the future, we might ask: “Is that a photograph? Like, a real photograph? Did that happen?”
In the past, suspicions sometimes arose that this or that photograph was staged or composited, or if elements might have been added or removed. But now that AI-generated imagery is on the cusp of being indistinguishable from actual photography, the seeds of doubt could very well grow into a general distrust of the medium itself. It will be a sad day when we look at an image and our imagination, dulled by doubt, no longer conjures up the stories, emotions and sense of wonder at a scene we assume never happened.
It’s not mainly photographers who are adopting botography at the moment; it’s the corporations, the bosses who can increase their profits by cutting photographers from their payroll, media outlets that desire but aren’t willing to pay for timely topical images, and, of course, individuals who previously failed to garner any attention by using cameras. This includes the usual bloggers, influencers and videographers whose content centers around photography but whose work was relentlessly pedestrian until they began to use AI to generate images they could pass off as their own work. “Are AI-generated images photography?” they pose to their chatbots with no sense of irony, as if it’s a real question, while soliciting subscriptions for their AI-themed masterclasses.
But eventually the more-oft asked question will be “Are any images photography?” as AI-generated images become so ubiquitous that actual photographs not only will not stand a chance in comparison, but any sufficiently interesting composition will automatically be dismissed as the result of a few keystrokes in an AI program. What I fear most is not that question, but that question becoming so irrelevant that it isn’t even asked. For what will be the appeal of such imagery when it is as common as cups? Will future photographers who go out into the world to make images using actual cameras be seen as the kind of people who refuse mass-produced tableware and make their own, the reaction being ok, cool I guess, but why?
After all, AI will be able to make any individual look “better” than any photographer could, more or less instantly and at a fraction of the cost. If Instagram and Tiktok have taught us anything, it’s that most people prefer to be portrayed as they imagine they look rather than how they really appear. The focus of most street photography these days seems to be clever compositions with people placed Just So in the frame, arranged among attractive colors/lights/shadows, regardless of emotional impact; this is something that AI can do with its theoretical hands behind its virtual back, with none of the controversy involving personal image rights or privacy rights. Reportage, as we’ve seen, has become nearly as vilified as street photography, and was already being dismissed as “fake news” even before the advent of AI.
Think about who is going to be using these image-generation programs and for what purpose; these programs come from the same corporate entities that have been buying off politicians, exploiting workers, eradicating entire photojournalism departments and recording us and our online activities 24/7 while simultaneously demonizing the act of individuals witnessing each other. When we abandon the act of witnessing reality, we risk the erasure of stories these entities feel we should not see, realities that, if more widely known, would threaten their hegemony. In retreating to our overpriced apartments and keyboards dimly lit by entry forms, we are abandoning the actual world, and not only will its wonders fade from our collective memory, its myriad problems will go unnoticed, unconsidered, unsolved, festering in the shadows of our ignorance. While the pundits rail against virtual reality apps, the actual disappearing world is happening at a much more intimate level.
It is no coincidence that the camera market is disappearing just as AI image generation is coming to the fore, that photojournalism is disappearing, or that long-established photography sites like DPreview are being abandoned by huge corporations like Amazon. Photography has always been a dangerous pursuit; showing truth to a world based on deception is one of the most perilous things one can do. But to those threatened by aspirations to speak truth to power, botography is a godsend.
It's been just over five years since I wrote an article called Photography Never Died, by which I meant that true photography has never been all that popular; the couple of decades from the 1990’s to the 20-teens saw the confluence of online popularity contests with digital cameras, but photography itself continued on much unchanged. But now I can’t help but wonder what bearing witness will even mean in a world full of bots, and I can imagine our future selves asking: "Did that happen?"
April 20, 2023