Australia’s largest photographic event, The Head On Photo Festival, is returning to the sunny shores of Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach for its 14th year. Much like everything else in 2023, the festival is about to feel the impact of artificial intelligence.
Kicking off on 10 November and running until 3 December, Head On Photo Festival includes panel discussions, gallery displays, and $70,000 in prizes distributed to winners. 400,000 people are expected to flock to the beachside exhibition alone while there are more than 100 other shows across the city, with hubs at The Muse, TAFE NSW Ultimo, and Paddington Reservoir Gardens.
This year’s events will feature over 700 emerging and professional photographers from around Australia and across the globe — but, for the first time, not all the images displayed will be entirely created by humans.
Four ‘photos’ by Russian-born, Dutch-based artist Toma Gerzha will be exhibited which incorporate elements of AI-generated imagery. The festival has said that the inclusion of AI is something that reflects the changing era.
“The festival is very much about everything,” Head On Photo Festival creative director and founder Moshe Rosenzveig OAM told The Latch.
“It’s not specifically documentary, or fine art, or technology, or whatever It’s very much about photography as a whole, as an art form.”
That art form has been at the centre of discussions around the disruptive power of AI over the past 18 months. We’ve seen people tricked by images of the Pope wearing a puffer jacket as well as the proliferation of other fakes in far more serious scenarios. In turbulent times, knowing what is real and what is not is vital, however, Rosenzveig argues that the rise of AI isn’t something that can be shunned.
“The way I look at it is it’s another tool,” he said.
“A lot of this stuff with AI, we’ve been using already for many years. It’s not very new. It’s not like it’s something that has totally revolutionized what we do. It’s a progression of a whole lot of things that we’ve already been doing”.
The director and former Middle-East photojournalist notes that when Adobe’s Photoshop software first emerged “everyone was kind of freaking out”. Soon, though, it became “just another tool.”
“The question is, how do you treat photography? Do you still maintain the line that a picture is worth more than 1000 words or that the picture cannot lie or whatever? All these sorts of truisms that we grew up with are not true anymore — and probably never were,” he said.
“We’ve always had questions about reality and how we document reality and what the truth is. It’s just now become so much more prevalent”
The images in question are not entirely AI-generated either. Rosenzveig explained that Head On accepts submissions from across the world and that 20-year-old Gerzha, who has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Copenhagen, and Seoul, applied with more traditional photographic work.
“We started talking to the photographer and realised that she’s got a whole heap of work that she’s been doing in the last few months that was AI generated which sort of complemented the other work she was doing,” Rosenzveig said.
“It’s interesting imagery that is very separate from her other work. It’s very clearly defined that this is not what happened in reality. We used to call it photo montage but these days we call it AI”.
Rosenzveig denied including the work simply because AI is a “hot topic” or as a statement about photography being under threat from technology.
“The reason was that this is interesting work so we should include it — and also it will create interesting conversation”.
While Rosenzveig argues that the ‘fight’ against AI is basically an unwinnable war, he stated that he is concerned about humanity entering a true post-modern or post-truth era where everyone is isolated in their own algorithmically constructed worldview and objectivity is obliterated. Conversations as part of the Head On festival will dive into the topic and what it means to be truly unable to trust your eyes.
The move is not entirely out of character, given that the festival has always been about moving forward. Head On got its start when Rosenzveig was rejected from the now-defunct Citigroup Private Bank Australian Photographic Portraiture Prize which was once held in conjunction with the Archibald Prize. Those who were accepted were all well-established photographers.
“At Head On the pieces are submitted blindly, so the selection panel doesn’t know who the photographer is. We don’t care where they went to school, or where they have exhibited before. We’re trying to eliminate that bias,” Rozenvieg notes in press material.
“Through this process, we have discovered a lot of new talent and launched photographers into hugely successful professional careers.”
Its international and inclusive nature has made it the biggest photo festival in the country and a significant event on the global arts calendar. Outside of AI, it’s a contemporary and diverse affair, with exhibitions on the war in Ukraine, bikie gangs in Iraq, logging in Tasmania, Holocaust survivors, aging, motherhood, and anorexia.
Despite embracing the rapid change of pace in the digital era, there are still some guardrails that the festival has put in place to protect artists. When it comes to prizes, Heads On stipulates that winning imagery must be produced using “photographic equipment” meaning this is not an out-and-out AI free-for-all.
“We want to see what people produce using light in order to create images and create ideas through these images,” Rosenzveig said.
“We are not interested in the ability of people to write a fantastic prompt to an AI.
“It has to come from a camera. Now, if people use AI to fix their images, that’s up to them”.
The competition is, after all, designed to celebrate photographic excellence. While the definitions of that are constantly shifting, for now, that means the image has to have some basis in the external world. Prizes for such work are distributed across Portrait, Landscape, and Environmental, with a special for students.
“We want to have a conversation. The festival is about celebrating photography and culture, we’re not shy of raising difficult questions”.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is part of where photography is going.”