On AI, Photography, and Golf

The big photography news of the last week or so has been German photographer Boris Eldagsen winning a Sony World Photography Award for his piece Pseudomnesia: The Electrician which, unnoticed by the Sony judges, was entirely created using AI.

Now let’s for a moment gloss over the fact that the Sony judges turning out to be completely clueless is some kind of vindication for all those of us who’ve previously entered the contest and never got anywhere (“If you can’t tell the difference between a photograph and an AI-generated image, then you may as well go home” said The Guardian), and also gloss over the debate on whether AI art is indeed art at all (that’s for another time), and instead discuss a point that most of the commentators on the story ignored.

Photography Isn’t (Just) About Photographs

Now that may sound a little counterintuitive but for many of us, photography really isn’t just about producing photographs. Just as, for many anglers, fishing isn’t really about catching fish. For me it’s about discovering the city I live in (without photography, I wouldn’t have seen the vast majority of places I’ve been to in Bangkok); exercise; getting out of the house & seeing other humans, and occasionally – gasp – talking to them; stopping for coffee, beer (in my drinking days, which ended 41 days ago), or street food; and, occasionally, taking some good photos.

Before 2021 when I changed my philosophy, I didn’t really go out shooting all that much. I’d get frustrated or discouraged quickly, I felt like an impostor, and I just…didn’t enjoy it. One day I was taking such bad photos that I nearly came home and put my camera up for sale.

Then in early 2021 I decided to change things up. I’d go out shooting at least once a week, I’d say ‘yes’ to everything (everything photography-related at least), and I wouldn’t get hung up on coming home with lots of good images. And it worked! I did about 70 shoots that year including street, food, fashion, protests, and plenty of other stuff I’d not done before, including live music photography which has since become a passion. And more importantly, I started enjoying the process itself, to the point where I no longer cared if I got any good images or not. And what happened was the less I cared, the more I enjoyed myself, the more I went out shooting, and…the more good pictures I took.

The crowds at punk/metal gigs in Bangkok make for fascinating & challenging subjects

Why Photography is Like Golf

My dad (RIP) was a keen golfer, and would go out to play at least once or twice per week. He didn’t care if it was a warm, sunny day or a cold, wet one; didn’t care if he played like a professional or a beginner; didn’t care if he won a trophy or finished last; he always came home with a smile on his face. The point for him was getting out of the office/house for a day, getting some fresh air & exercise, and getting better at the hobby he enjoyed most. (Oh, and in another photography/golf analogy, he’d always have a good laugh at the guys who went out and bought expensive gear before they had any idea how to use it).

Which is exactly how I treat photography now. I don’t set targets for myself; I’ve given up all thoughts of trying to make money out of it which is all but impossible; I just go out, walk around, meet interesting people, and shoot interesting stuff.

AI Doesn’t Get You Out of the House

Now I’m not one of the AI naysayers – I use ChatGPT a lot at work and am currently studying prompt engineering, I love the AI tools in the latest version of Lightroom (how did I ever manage without the background mask??!!) and I can appreciate the skill and enjoyment to be had in creating images from AI prompts, but the whole point of this post is that the two processes are very different, and for me the process is more important than the result.

It’s hard enough to get me out of the house at the best of times, and if it wasn’t for photography my world would be a lot smaller. So whilst there may come a day when AI is every bit the equal of traditional photography when it comes to the end product, it will never replace the immense joy of getting up at 6am on a Saturday to wander around a Bangkok market, hanging out at a bar shooting punk bands, or waking up in a foreign city knowing you have the whole day to wander around, explore and take photos. In a couple of years’ time maybe the pictures won’t even be as good as their AI equivalents, but who cares – I’ll have had a lot more fun creating them.

Header image by Alex Schwander