Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Are We Going Out of Business? A Photography Rep's Point of View on AI

AI-generated imagery first caught my eye on Instagram back in September. Ann Elliott Cutting, a friend, and former client shared incredible images that appeared straight out of her dreams.  Women in flowy white gowns, sepia bears knitting, and collections of sea creatures in beautiful blue colors.  And she hasn’t stopped creating them since.

What I saw inspired me to read all that I could about AI and start talking to people and asking questions.  At first, not many people had much of an informed opinion but those that did all said the same thing. “It’s terrifying!”  I agreed and was convinced I was going out of business. 

That changed once I spoke with Ann and also with Joe Naylor, the President of ImageRights. They gave me a crash course in AI, explained what was worthy of my fear, and excited me with the possibilities. So, as is the case with everything else in life, the more you learn the less scary something becomes.  So for me, AI became more intriguing than scary.

With newfound knowledge and an open mind, I started conversations with our artists to share what I learned and learn from them.

 Here is what we talked about. 

 The Scary Parts First

  • Yes, AI is terrifying. Yes, it is ok to be afraid.  And yes, it is changing our industry. But it is here; so you should not ignore it and hope it goes away. Now is the time to educate yourself. Whether you choose to sell against it or advocate for it (or both), you will need to understand it because the person bidding alongside you and the creative you want to work with most certainly will. 

  • We are in a grace period right now. How will you use this time?  Remember moving from film to digital? How about when you needed to learn how to shoot motion? Those transitions didn’t happen overnight. And, those times were scary too.  There was a grace period then too in order to learn the new skills necessary to stay relevant. Recognize this and take advantage of it.

  • Right now, the resolution of images created with AI is low. That works in our favor but that won’t last for long. And in AI time, everything is exponential, especially time.

  • Usage is a real issue. Who owns the new image? Who is the creator? Do all the individual owners of the images used to create the new image own it? Do the Prompt Engineers get credit?  How about the AI generators? Well, their terms very clearly state that they do own the creation. So, how does copyright law play into this? Will Fair Use apply? Are these questions making brands wary? What are their legal teams telling them?

  • As of now, I believe a lot of this will play out in the courts. 

As you may have read, Getty brought a lawsuit against Stable AI Inc; claiming that it illegally scraped millions of images from Getty’s stock collection to train its image generator. They cited artists' rights as the basis for their claim. Having such a large company defend image rights is very important and hopefully, a trend that will continue.  

Remember, AI runs off of data sets. So, companies like Getty, Adobe, and Meta/Instagram already have their own libraries from which to create AI-generated images. Such large libraries allow for the creation of custom data sets that would be appealing to brands in the form of a subscription service. Some companies already offer this. But how did they train their image generators? Did they use only their own images? Or did they too scrape the web without an authorization?

  • We need to start thinking about how to protect our own images. Most artists in our industry have licensed libraries for unlimited usage/time. Those images are not low res. What is to stop that client from developing their own data set from those images and using AI to create all new content from your vision? Do your terms allow for derivative works?  If so, are AI images created from your own libraries a derivative work? Can we prevent this?  And, did you copyright your images?  You will need to have in order to be in the strongest legal position. I am talking with our lawyers about this and have brought it up with my fellow board members at the Artist Management Association to see how we can be a resource for our members on this issue. If you have any insight you want to share, please do so here.

Now, the Opportunities

When I first talked with Ann she shared that she read somewhere that ‘AI is to photography as photography was to painting.’ The obvious translation here is that AI will replace photography like photography replaced painting.  

I thought about that for a long time.  Did photography actually replace painting? Or, was it a new tool that artists could add to their toolboxes? We all know that painting as an art form did not die and I beleive neither will photography. Remember, there has always been resistance to advances brought on by technology and once the hype dies down about the latest innovation, each new technology becomes another tool in the toolbox of talented creators. Maybe not as much fun as doomsday predictions, but if history is any guide, AI will follow the well-established pattern. 

Just as photography did when it first arrived, I believe AI brings opportunity. It might not be comfortable but there is opportunity.

  • Craft will see a resurgence. Just like any artistic endeavor you need to be talented. The best work will always rise to the top and this is because the best photographers understand all that is required to create a truly compelling photograph.

Photographers have been drawing from their own lives and their years of experiences for every photograph they create. Doug Menuez recently wrote about craft.  He said,  “When we talk about craft, we talk about the pride in learning a certain set of skills. The time, effort and energy it takes to achieve mastery of those skills and craft is the wrapping that ties all of that work together. Personally, it is a lifelong commitment and everything I do is in service of developing my craft and getting as good at it as I possibly can.”

What Doug is talking about cannot be replaced by AI because ultimately AI is not real. What is created did not happen and does not exist in the real world and this matters. AI cannot duplicate emotion and the best photographs in the world draw on emotion. The most compelling brand messages are emotional. And, any image created with AI does not convey real emotion in a real moment. 

  • We are being inspired again. We are in year three of the pandemic.  For so many different reasons, many artists are not creating for themselves as much as they used to. After a very long collective pause, some are having a hard time finding a new vision that matches today’s world. Some are tired of the insanity of our industry. Others found inspiration elsewhere. 

AI is changing that. It is waking up some artists to the possibilities of what they can create and inspiring others to evolve their work. Zachary Scott is using AI to create mood boards for images he wants to create.  Andy Anderson is using it to share how his work would translate into fashion photography for specific brands; something he was already experimenting with last year. And, other artists are using it as a way to start a conversation about AI. However it is being used, AI is getting us talking and creating.

Lastly, The Most Important Thing

No matter what you think of AI, or if you plan to use it or not; I think it is very important right now to have an educated point of view about it.  Talk to other photographers, reps, creatives, clients, and lawyers.  Experiment with the technology.  Develop a point of view. And then, share what you learn.  This is new, exciting, and terrifying for all of us and the most positive way forward is together. 

And, no, we are not going out of business.  At least, not from AI.

Thank you Ann Elliott Cutting for the use of your images for this post.