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reclaiming the brAIn

how my real photo F L A M I N G O N E won an AI award






Nature still outdoes the machine and you helped prove it! 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. Read on for the full scoop.

the story behind the picture


Not much to tell. Well, when in Aruba. Well, when getting up at 5am 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, even though I did get a great shot with a selfie-human that also won an award recently.

the award

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1839 Awards is an international photo competition with a high-calibre jury that includes members of the New York Times, Phaidon Press, Getty Images, Centre Pompidou in Paris, Christie’s, and Maddox Gallery. The jury had shortlisted my picture F L A M I N G O N E, which put it in the running for two awards: the jury’s award and the people’s choice award. In the end, it could convince both the jury and the public, winning the people’s choice award and finishing among the jury’s winners.

the twist

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The twist: the photo is as real as the simple belly scratch the bird is busy with.

With AI-generated content remodelling the digital landscape rapidly while sparking an ever-fiercer debate about its implications for the future of content and the creators behind it – from creatives like artists, journalists, and graphic designers to employees in all sorts of industries – I entered this actual photo into the AI category of 1839 Awards to prove that human-made content has not lost its relevance, that Mother Nature and her human interpreters can still beat the machine, and that creativity and emotion are more than just a string of digits.


After seeing recent instances of AI-generated imagery outshining actual photos in competitions, it occurred to me that I could twist this story inside down and upside out the way only a human could and would, by submitting a real photo into an AI competition. My work F L A M I N G O N E was the perfect candidate because it's a surreal and almost unimaginable shot, and yet completely natural. It is the first real photo to win an AI award.

Of course, there were ethical concerns about leading the jury astray, which I didn’t take lightly. But I was hoping that these industry professionals and also the audience would find that this jab at AI and its ethical implications outweighs the ethical implications of deceiving the viewer, which, of course, is ironic because that is what AI does.


the twisted twist

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After revealing F L A M I N G O N E' S true nature to the organizers, my entry was disqualified, which is a completely justified and right decision that I expected and support fully. The big surprise here was the organizers' reaction: Lily Fierman, Co-Founder and Director of 1839 Awards, remarked in her email to me that she appreciates the powerful message and that it was an important and timely statement. "We hope this will bring awareness (and a message of hope) to many photographers worried about AI," she said. Her words and take on the matter made my day more than any of the press articles that were published since. I couldn’t have been more excited to learn that we are on the same page.


The quality of imagery submitted to the contest was outstanding across all categories, which also speaks to the jury’s keen eyes, so I am truly humbled to have been part of it. Thank you 1839 Awards Team!

I hope that winning over both the jury and the public with this picture, was not just a win for me but for many creatives out there. I won’t go as far as to say that it’s a win for Mother Nature herself because I think she’s got bigger things on her plate; who knows, maybe AI can help her with that, by computing climate change models and the likes. That is, 01010011 01000001 01010110 01000101 00100000 01000101 01000001 01010010 01010100 01001000



By now, F L A M I N G O N E has traveled all around the world and turned millions of heads with features in hundreds of publications and a viral social media outbreak.

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Guys, THANK YOU!! I’m deeply humbled by all the support, from hilarious to heartfelt and thoughtful. Those are uniquely human traits that no AI can replicate, recreate, or relate to. We, collectively, are the message.


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PPS: If you're curious about the broader and deeper implications of the stunt and story, check out this commentary I wrote for Fortune along the lines of “Point made. Now what?”

F L A M I N G O N E also made a live-telly appearance on CNN International’s First Move, and that beautiful beast let me tag along for a little interview with the fabulous Julia Chatterley.

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