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An Uneasy Alliance

Updated: Jan 24

It takes a great deal of courage for a photojournalist to work on the front line.

Many have given their lives in pursuit of stories they felt the world had to see.

And yet nothing could stop them taking a leap into the unknown.

...But how do you cover a story that is completely inaccessible - whatever the odds?

Maybe you don't have to be there at all.

Photographer Michael Christopher Brown has a fine reputation as a photojournalist - “I spent years as a documentarian, dedicating and risking everything to capture real stories in the most candid and pure way possible.”

But his photo essay '90 miles' is a product not of a photographic adventure but instead of his imagination.

90 miles of shark-infested water separate Havana from Florida. The risks of death from high seas, the weather and what lurks under the surface have not deterred many Cubans from risking their lives to try and cross the waters for a better life in America.

Their bravery inspired Michael Christopher Brown to want to capture their story. How he did it has caused an explosive debate in the world of photography. On his instagram he clearly states that his photo-essay '90 miles' is entirely AI generated. This was a story that he felt had to be told even if he was never really there...

Imagery generated by Artificial Intelligence has rocked the world of photography. We have seen its profound impact on the historical archive - causing confusion about real and imagined histories but its impact is most feared in contemporary image making.

Fans of MCB's work have been outraged by his foray into AI; calling his images 'unethical' and 'disturbing'. Many have threatened to unfollow his popular instagram account. The images were the result of several visits to Cuba and a great deal of research but MCB says that he had to resort to AI because covering the story with a camera was impossible - not only because of the treacherous seas but also because of Cuban politics.

I wonder what Robert Capa would have made of AI imagery. I wonder if he would have supported Michael Christopher Brown's work or if he would have rejected it.

Capa died on the front line of the war in Vietnam in 1954. Driven all the way to the end by his mantra - 'If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough'.

Michael's critics might well quote Capa's line but he is robust in his defence of '90 miles' - “The criticism does not affect me, I’ve received a significant amount of criticism for other projects in the past so my skin is fairly thick at this point.”

To his credit, Michael is a photographer who has marked plenty of time on the front line- “The more criticism and debate the better, my role in this was just to create the imagery and put it into context for the community,” He further describes it as a "post-photography AI reporting illustration experiment exploring historical events and realities of Cuban Life that have motivated Cubans to cross the 90 miles of ocean separating Havana from Florida"

I find the images of '90 miles' impressive but, on closer examination, these pictures fail to really engage emotionally - despite MCB's great efforts to make this work visceral and truly meaningful - but I do celebrate his willingness to risk his reputation as a 'legitimate photojournalist' with this ground-breaking 'photo-essay'.

In 2003 the US Coast Guard encountered a truck converted into a boat - intercepting it as the crew attempted to cross the 90 miles to Florida. The amphibious truck had spent 31 terrifying hours at sea. The Coast Guard forced the exhausted Cubans from their heroic efforts, arresting them and unceremoniously sinking their truck - consigning it to the oblivion of the ocean depths.

Ai will not be so easily dealt with. Both as photographers and citizens of the world, we all need to recognise and openly debate AI as it further takes hold of our lives. Michael Christopher Brown describes himself as both a photographer and an artist. He is clear in his mission - '90 Miles' is primarily a product of his work as an artist; produced in a photorealistic manner. He wanted people to know about the Cuban's story; to him, AI is just another means of producing a story. And he is the first to state the means he has used to create it. The danger, of course is when AI is used in a covert manner (often in a dangerous way) to present 'truths' that have no bearing in reality.

...And the fact is that we are all using AI in our photography already - whether we know it or not. Smartphones rely heavily on AI designed computing to produce sharp, colourful imagery and film photographers who scan their film or finesse their work in a programme such as photoshop, will be relying on machine learning to speed their process.

I guess the real fear amongst photographers is that AI will put them out of business entirely. Maybe - but I doubt it.

Listen to Capa: just make sure your photography has some real meaning.

...And, dare I say it: some real soul - because that's the one thing that is really lacking from AI imagery.

For now, at least!

blog copyright Matthew Whiteman January 2024

images copyright Michael Christopher Brown and the estate of Robert Capa

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2 commentaires

13 janv.

Interesting article..the issue for me personally is not about the use of AI, or other software editing techniques, which whilst I don't use them myself, can be very creative and produce some lovely images, but it's the lack of 'honesty' and of calling something a photo, when it isn't.

In a photoclub I ran a few years ago, we had monthly competitions on a particular theme, where the winner for the best photo was voted on by other members, one month the theme was Autumn and the winning 'photo' was of a young woman, dressed in country garb, in the middle of a beautiful wood and she stood there holding her hands out to capture a swirl of beautiful autumn…

13 janv.
En réponse à

On a related note, I've just read about the Leica M11-P which uses the Content Authenticity Initiative (CAI) to ensure content provenance and protect copyright, which whilst very clever, is a sad reflection on our world that we have to resort to using such things

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