The Pursuit of Truth: Will AI Prompt a Return to Film Photography?

The Pursuit of Truth: Will AI Prompt a Return to Film Photography?

Are we living in a post-truth era of photography, where the authenticity and reliability of images have become questionable? Given the rise in AI’s association with photography and the ease with which photos can be altered, it might be worth considering a return to the use of traditional film as a means to regain trust and ensure the integrity of photography.

Photography has long been regarded as a medium that documents the world around us, offering a glimpse into the reality of a specific place and time. However, with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI), concerns surrounding truth and authenticity in photography have become more pronounced. In this article, we explore the current evolving landscape of photography, delving into the impact of AI and its implications for truth, authenticity, and the future of the medium.

The advent of digital photography and image sharing on social media platforms have already significantly reshaped our understanding of authenticity in photography. In an era where filters and editing apps are readily available, the notion of viewing an unaltered image has become increasingly elusive. The pressure to present flawless images is leading to a loss of the perception of reality that photography once celebrated.  From portraits featuring poreless porcelain skin and perfect body ratios, to landscape images stitched together with moody skies and no blemishes on the land to create the perfect shot, we accept that some of what we see should be taken with a pinch of salt. But now that AI has entered the chat, where do we draw the line?

AI has revolutionized the field of photography, offering powerful tools designed for streamlining workflow, removing imperfections, and even creating entirely new visuals. While these advancements have undoubtedly opened up possibilities for photographers and artists, they have also raised significant questions about the authenticity and integrity of the images we see around us every day.

Okay, so my header image for this article is very clearly fake, but what if you opened an article discussing the dangers of fully opening windows in apartments where children live, and this article was accompanied by the image below?  As photographers, we have a trained eye and can scrutinize the image, but I showed this image to my 72-year-old mother, and she gasped, thinking it was real. 

One of the main concerns revolves around the ease with which AI can be used to manipulate and distort reality. Deepfake technology allows for the creation of highly convincing fake images and videos, making it difficult to tell what is real and what is not. This raises ethical questions, particularly in a photojournalistic context, where the truthfulness of visual evidence is of huge importance.

In an era where the authenticity of digital images can be easily compromised, film photography instills trust in the medium itself. Film photography, characterized by the use of light-sensitive film and chemical development processes, holds a closer position to truth and authenticity. Unlike digital photography, where images can be easily manipulated and altered, film captures a moment as it truly exists. As the lines between reality and digital manipulation continue to blur, shooting with film could serve as a reliable back up where negatives are available in the event that the authenticity of images is under scrutiny. 

It's not all negative. AI can be a useful tool, enabling photographers to automate laborious tasks, leaving more time to focus on creating. However, AI algorithms can alter images in convincing ways, blurring the line between reality and fiction. This poses a threat to the credibility and trustworthiness of photojournalistic work, as viewers may be misled by digitally manipulated images that appear genuine. The authenticity and truthfulness that have long been associated with photojournalism are at risk in an era where AI can easily deceive the audience.

Film negatives serve as physical evidence of the captured moment, providing a connection to the truth which we can hold in our hands and see for ourselves. This transparency and tangibility offers confidence in the authenticity of the photograph, as it is difficult to dispute the reality of an image that exists, as captured, as a physical object. Returning to film photography would represent a commitment to preserving the art and craft of the medium. The process of shooting, developing, and printing film photographs requires a level of skill and craftsmanship that is distinct from the convenience of digital photography or AI algorithms. By embracing film, photographers can reconnect with traditional techniques, allowing their technical expertise to convey their artistic vision. 

It is important to recognize that authenticity in photography is a multifaceted concept. Of course, film can be digitized, and through that process becomes at risk of falling foul to AI in the same way that digital images are. One thing is for sure: AI continues to evolve and is here to stay. It is essential that AI systems are developed within a set of defined ethical standards, which don’t seem to exist in any meaningful way as yet. Perhaps any AI manipulation should be listed within image metadata as standard, which would be a good place to start.

Could a resurgence of film photography serve as an antidote to the concerns surrounding AI-driven image manipulation? To counteract concerns and re-establish photography as a medium of truth, it is worth exploring the unique qualities of film that foster authenticity and argue for its resurgence as a means of capturing genuine moments in an increasingly AI-driven world.  This post-truth problem challenges our ability to assess reality, and this leads to questions about the authenticity of photography. As we navigate this complex landscape, have we gone so far that “the truth” is now just a concept?

I have ended this article with the original apartment image, which I shot in early 2020 while leading a photography walkabout in Glasgow. Noticing a herd of photographers in the street, a decorator leaned out of a window and asked for a picture. After reading this article, can you trust this information or the content of the image?

Kim Simpson's picture

Kim Simpson is a photographer based in the West of Scotland. Her photographic practice is an exploration of the human experience, with a particular emphasis on themes of identity and belonging.

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This seems like an overly complex solution to a problem. Nikon and Canon used to (maybe still do) sell options for their flagship cameras that would digitally sign/checksum raw files out of their cameras so law enforcement and others could attest that an image was exactly as it came out of camera. That seems a far simpler solution.

That may be a valid option today, but everything digital could eventually be spoofed. We can never know where will technology move, especially with the arrival of quantum computers being able to break any encryption/signature. I'd guess the only way to be sure is to have an original negative at hand.

Now, I'm not saying it will happen, but we can't rule it out either.

Can't you take a film picture of a digitally edited image printed on paper? Then, I guess that if it's done properly, you will not be able to tell that it's fake?

I wrote this on my latest youtube video and will summarize it here.

The short answer is an emphatic No! Yes there will be a group of 1% who still value the older technology as they do in vinyl records, old muscle cars, and traditional art (paintings etc) but the majority, probably like 99.9999% of consumers will still pick the latest trends. Ultimately it all boils down to the reward pathways and which media gives us the biggest bang for the buck. Tiktok has shown that MOST people value bang over substance and it's super obvious in reality tv, the news we digest, and the entertainment we love.

Take music for example. One can argue that streaming quality mp3s are worse in quality than vinyl or even FLAC compression. The majority do not care. The convenience of playing music off an iphone or a simple mono wifi speaker is so much more important than a hifi stereo that most people don't even listen to the majority of their music on systems anymore (you can trade out speaker for lower quality headphones too). Then there is the music production itself. Gone are the human flaws and spontaneity found in classic albums and recordings and instead replaced with perfectly quantized sampled beats that never drift from perfect time and sound incredibly sterile and boring. The majority don't care and few even know that there is a difference in the performance and recording process.

The same will become of images. People will not care if it was shot on film vs shot digitally or retouched by hand or retouched by Ai. We might say we care but our purchases, preferences, and subconscious actions will prove otherwise.

Of course if you totally disagree there is a chance you are one of the .001% but then again, when you see an ad for a product or a listing for a house, there is still a great chance you will not know that you, the connoisseur of "humanly produced art" are still highly consuming the very thing you despise.

I agree that the consumer is not concerned with the 'how' rather just interested in accessing and consuming content easily. My thought process behind this article was more to address issues of credibility and trustworthiness where it matters - documentary, photojournalism etc.

I've quickly stopped following some photographers because they are beginning to use A.I.
Film or digital, I will follow photographers I trust. Reputations will rise and fall over credibility and trust.

Umm, NO. Why don't we go back to standard TV and DSL dial up Internet service too while we're at it.

The Content Authenticity Initiative is meant to address the problems of authenticity in images. Adobe is already incorporating the metadata in Firefly, and a beta program exists to add the data to Photoshop edited images. What we really need, 5 years ago, is the metadata to be embedded in images on capture. Nikon and Leica were the first to publicly commit to the standard and demo’ed the Z9 and M11 respectively with the firmware update last Fall. Whether it gets incorporated into current or future cameras is unknown.

The next step is getting hosting solutions like social media, web platforms, etc., to recognize and display some kind of signal or indicator about the chain of authenticity.

All of this will take time to catch on - if it does.

As to “will film be the last bastion of truth”, I don’t believe so. As you pointed out, most film photos are digitized and then subject to whatever AI manipulation. The “film look” isn’t that difficult to replicate - certainly not for a trained AI. Add to that, it’s quite a privileged perspective to hope that film becomes more valuable to the audience than digital. Shooting film is expensive and time consuming. Digital has democratized the medium and allows nearly anyone on the planet to participate.

Instead of relying on a technical solution to solve our woes, for now we’re going to have to learn to trust the authors. We’ll have to build that trust with our audience, and maintain it. In the same way that the CAI proposes to place indicators on manipulated (or not) images, we can announce it ourselves. Of course we’ll come across manipulative actors trying to pass off the faked image as real - and for now that’s just us navigating this uncharted territory.

I agree that ultimately certain photographers will have to develop reputations for honesty in creation--rather the way we used to trust (and still do, to an extent) particular news personalities. This doesn't have to be a global or national celebrity reputation, only a reputation with our own individual markets.

We will have to develop those markets that actually care about verité in imaging. We'll have to sell the value of verité to make it happen.

The negative or slide is the representation of absolute truth. When you have printed your negative/slide or digitised it, then you can fake it as much as you like. But editing a negative/slide esp multi-layered colour film, is practically imposible (without leaving tell-tale signs on the surface).

Saying that, I have absolutely no desire to shoot film. My own photography is rather basic, editing is minimal and I am NOT going to use AI - ever.

I do get tired of seeing those 1000's of photoshopped landscapes that are generally divorced from what was originally in front of the camera and hanker some something a little more plain, simple and honest. So, perhaps from that respect a small number will start using or even return to film.

If you want to fully embrace AI as an image tool, go right ahead. Enjoy it whilst it lasts. In ten years time I think we'll look back on AI imaging the same way as we look back at the HDR fad some years ago.

I think there's opportunity for services like to become a sort of authentic social media site. Because they do the actual film processing and scanning, they could host the file sharing and certify that it was not modified.

Of course, people did all sorts of film-based frauds, like bigfoot, area 51, the Cottingley Faires, spirit photography... but at least photographers could verify to viewers that it was indeed a film capture until we have a method of better authenticating images.

absolutely, I wanted to add info on the Cottingley Fairies in this article but image usage rights on those differ between the US and UK... so left that paragraph out :)

"Could a resurgence of film photography serve as an antidote to the concerns surrounding AI-driven image manipulation?" Maybe it could have worked prior to 1858, when photographer Henry Peach Robinson created a sensation with "Fading Away," a poignant image of a young woman dying peacefully while surrounded by her grieving family. Victorians were shocked that a photographer would have intruded on such a scene... even after Robinson revealed that it was a completely fictitious composition skillfully assembled by the technique of combination printing.

Of course combination printing was labor-intensive... darkroom virtuoso Jerry Uelsmann used a roomful of enlargers to create his works... but other photographers created convincing "generative" creations with simpler methods. O. Winston Link's 1956 "Hot Shot Eastbound at the Drive-In, Iaeger, West Virginia," is a dramatic night scene of a steam locomotive thundering past a drive-in theater, where crowds lounging in cars are watching a scene of a jet airplane on the movie screen. It's a neat distillation of three generations of transportation... only slightly spoiled when you know that Link got the plane onto the movie screen by cutting it out of another photo, pasting it onto the drive-in scene, and rephotographing the result.

In other words, photographers have been tinkering to make photos "better than real" ever since the dawn of the medium. Generative imaging simply automates that process and makes it available to a wider range of tinkerers. Reverting to film techniques won't relieve our skepticism, nor should it.

I have the feeling that photography lost a bit of its soul and identity with AI. When looking at nature photography (probably this applies to some other genres as well), IMO, a part of the beauty is that it's real. I'm amazed by the beauty of nature, let it be an animal or a landscape. So far, we all know that it was eventually highly enhanced by editing on a computer, eventually with time or exposure blending, removal of distracting features, but the scene was more or less real. Fake images existed but that was a very tiny part of what we found on the web because making them required time and skills. So the trust on what we saw was still high.

Now, anybody can make a realistic fake image in a minute and that changes everything. The web will be full of AI generated images in a few years. We won't be able to trust any image anymore. A photography cannot be considered anymore as a capture of reality, it's become really just digital art. This can be mitigated if we know the person that makes the image and can trust her. For instance, picture from Vincent Munier will still be photography as we knew as I don't think AI is his taste at all! But a picture from an unknown guy on a social network, no trust anymore...

I agree, part of the beauty of looking at certain images is in the knowing that the event, person or place existed in that form, in that moment. We all have our reasons for falling in love with photography, and there will be many who dont mind as much which is fine for certain genres, but humans have kept visual records since cave paintings to depict our realities. Documenting history will be a bit of a nightmare for future generations!

You may be using AI and not know it. The AI algorithms are buried in automated systems. Once posted, an image is susceptible to manipulation or all out creation from scratch. The robots took some of our jobs but it did not wipe out our civilization. The whole thing reeks of insecurities. I do this for fun and couldn't care less about what other people do. But hey, that's me. I have a degree in AI (Cybernetics) and have used them for genetics research for 20+ years. I believe half of what I see and none of what I hear. The algorithms are inscrutable to most and they have no idea what an AI is. I have written them myself implementing advanced search of DNA that REQUIRES a different approach. The data is so big it cannot be analyzed manually. Do I trust it, yes. Why? Because I know what happens underneath. Meanwhile, I will use whatever tools and techniques I want. I am not afraid.I feel more anxious about our infrastructure software that been running for decades in the background. But hey, I am a freak in this case. You're mileage may vary.

What I fear and see coming is the use of AI for very nefarious purposes. Use your imagination on that. I dont mind AI for scifi and other surreal useage at all, but I will never use it for myself. I'd like my images as pure as possible unless I'm doing some surreal or strange images for a client or fun. This could very quickly go deep south in a heart beat and some type of monitoring or regulations should be looked into. I am also sure that there will be very many who will use it for very creative purposes as well. Bottom line for me, I'll just stick to what I've been doing all these decades. Whether via digital or film. This topic will be ongoing for quite a while.