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A.I. and the Future of Visual Storytelling

Reflections on Michael Christopher Brown's 90 Miles


by Barbara Ayotte

Synthetic image created using AI by Michael Christopher Brown

Published June 2024


With the rapid onset of artificial intelligence (A.I.), photography seems to be at a pivotal crossroads. Is documentary photography as we know it dying or is something else emerging alongside it?

Michael Christopher Brown calls his A.I.-driven work post-photography, A.I. reportage illustration, photorealistic reportage, and photographic-looking imagery. In short, it is not photography, and it is certainly not documentary photography. 


His recent project, 90 Miles, is an A.I. experiment that explores historic events of Cuban life that have motivated Cubans to cross the 90 miles of ocean separating Havana from Florida. Since the time of Fidel Castro and the Bay of Pigs in the 1960s, thousands of Cubans have fled across the ocean to the United States. But what has this passage looked like? By using the A.I. tool Midjourney, Brown, an award-winning Magnum, New York Times Magazine and National Geographic documentary photographer (his seminal documentary photography work on the Libyan war, Libyan Sugar, was reviewed in the Spring 2017 issue of ZEKE), is using text prompts while collaborating with a historical database of photographic images to illustrate a vision of what was, is, or can be. No lenses or cameras are involved to make his pictures. Using A.I, Brown assembles a body of photo-like illustrations to give us a sense of that journey. But did these scenes really happen? Did these people really exist? Can it be believed as truth? 


Seeing is Believing?


At a recent panel discussion as part of SDN’s Visual Storytelling Festival 2024, Brown talked about this work with Fred Ritchin, dean emeritus of the Schools of the International Center of Photography; Stephen Hart of Adobe; and Lauren Walsh, professor at New York University. As Ritchin pointed out, manipulated imagery is not new and the practice of creating “synthetic images” has been going on for decades, well before the arrival of A.I. But today in this social media age of photo saturation, dis- and misinformation, he says, “we don’t know if any photos are real, and should be skeptical of all images we see.” Ritchin has concerns about what this means for history when synthetic images get fed into the A.I. database of images and the lie is perpetuated. Hart said, “the evil is not A.I., it is the lack of education and assumption by many that it is OK to manipulate images and present them as reality.” Princess Kate’s family photograph is a case in point. Many people didn’t see what the problem was with the palace releasing a manipulated image, even though it was passed off as “news” until Associated Press pulled the image after recognizing it was fake.


What if There is No Light?


The generally understood definition of photography is the art, application, and practice of creating images by recording light, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. 


Noted Southern Gothic author Eudora Welty, who was also an accomplished photographer, described photography as “trying to portray what you saw, and truthfully. A camera catches that fleeting moment.” But is it photography when a camera isn’t even used at all to generate the image? What if there is no light involved at all? As Brown says, “reportage illustration” is visual journalism that has been used for 150 years. Other more appropriate words that come to mind are history paintings, visual fiction, or visual novels. 


Looking at 90 Miles, the photos all have a certain lighting quality to them, almost like a Renaissance painting. There are no captions since there are no details about each composited image. Something about them looks off yet familiar at the same time. Some of the faces and scenes clearly look fake, while others are believable. But these built images defy the definition of photography. As the writer Susan Sontag said, “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” 

Synthetic image created using AI by Michael Christopher Brown

Who has Agency?


 “When it overlaps with reality, it gets more complex. How does an A.I.-created image appeal to the people being depicted?” asks Ritchin. People who are victims of violence are the ones who are most affected—often they need the photo of their situation to be believed, especially if the photo is being used as evidence. More importantly, it is well-known that there is an inherent bias in A.I. But Brown says, “People generally don’t want to be voiceless but often desire to be faceless.” Could A.I. be a tool for NGOs to “document” what is impossible to photograph due to the danger the images might cause for the victims? There is an ongoing debate about whether using real images of real people who are victims is ethical. What if A.I. is the only way to tell the story? The problem with A.I., however, is that it is unclear if a real person is being presented at all. 

Whose Truth?


We know that traditional documentary photography has contended with biases. For decades these images have been from the perspective of the White, male gaze (that is changing now, see page 52 for J. Sybylla Smith’s article on women changing the face of documentary). A.I. as a result, has the same inherent biases in the images it finds. It would be interesting if the subjects themselves could take part in producing A.I. images to have more control over their own storytelling and their own truth. But even that gets fraught as people are keen now more than ever to curate and manipulate images of themselves to create an identity that they want people to see.

Brown doesn’t know how he feels about these images. He is happy he made them since he couldn’t get access to take these pictures in real life. “I am not trying to destroy the field of photography; I really care about these projects. You can criticize this new medium, but, first, learn how it works.” Clearly there are more questions than answers. SDN and ZEKE will continue to explore this important topic.


To view a video of the panel discussion, visit here.

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