A Real Flamingo Photo Won an AI Image Contest

Free photo by RoyBuri on Canva.com

Miles Astray submitted a photo he took of a flamingo in Aruba to the 1839 Awards’ Color Photography Contest. His work won third place in its category and took the People’s Vote distinction. But he was later disqualified on a technicality - his photo wasn’t AI generated.

Astray took the picture, titled “ F L A M I N G O N E,” in 2022. Two years later, and after two years of people turning AI images into traditional photo contests, Astray flipped the script.

The artist knowingly entered his picture of a flamingo tucking its head behind itself to appear like a pink ball on two legs into an AI category of the 1839 Awards competition. He wanted to illustrate the power of human emotion, something he said AI lacks. Little did he know how well his point would be proven.

“I wanted to show that there is a human and emotional quality here that AI cannot generate,” Astray said to Alex Clark of CBS News. “The fact that this picture in the end was chosen not only by the jury, but also by public vote, proved that point, and I’m very happy about that.”

So happy, that Astray had this to say on his website after the results were announced:

“Nature still outdoes the machine and you helped prove it!” he wrote on his website. “My picture ‘F L A M I N G O N E” won the People’s Vote and a Jury Award in the artificial intelligence category of 1839 Awards - the twist: the photo of a flamingo, whose head is apparently missing, is not actually AI-generated. After the reveal, organizers had a surprising reaction that really made my day.”

People attempting to pass off AI photos, writing, and other elements as their own or human-created has become commonplace in the modern world. What hasn’t hit the mainstream is the opposite. It did not occur to Lily Fierman, the director and co-founder of Creative Resource Collective, which runs the 1839 Awards, that someone could try this.

“We never expected somebody to try to enter a non-AI image into AI,” she told Clark of CBS News. “I think the assumption is it’s always the other way around. Anyone can be fooled by this kind of stuff, let’s be real. But also most importantly, at the end of the day, we agree with Miles’ statement. In him winning and this happening kind of organically, it gives a message of hope to everyone that nature and the photographer have key places in our world and that just isn’t something that computers or AI can replicate.”

Fierman told Jacqui Palumbo of CNN that her organization intends to work with Astray to continue a dialogue surrounding the role of AI-generated images in society and art.

“We hope this will raise awareness (and send a message of hope) to other photographers who are worried about AI,” she said.

The Flamingo Photo in Question

While in Aruba two years ago, Astray snapped this moment of a flamingo in an unusual position. How did this happen?

This is the backstory he gave on his website:

“Not much to tell,” he wrote. “Well, when in Aruba. Well, when setting up at 5 a.m. to beat the crowds to a beach where flamingos roam freely. The birds don’t seem to mind, but I wanted some pictures without people ruining them…”

The photographer told Palumbo of CNN that this was not his plan all along. He really just wanted to take some cool pictures of the fabulous fowl.

“I was not actively looking for a picture that would work for this stunt,” he said. “Rather, the idea had been roaming in some remote corner of my mind, more subconsciously than consciously I think, and when I saw this picture, it surfaced. It is simply the perfect shot for this because the scene is so unreal and for such a simple, natural reason: a flamingo scratching its belly.”