The Robots Are Coming, but There's One Thing They Can't Touch

The Robots Are Coming, but There's One Thing They Can't Touch
We've always known that robots are coming for all of our jobs, but in the past year, we've started to see them clank out of the shadows. There are few areas that are safe from their shiny mitts, but there is one thing that is impossible for AI to replicate and usurp.

Last year, I started working with AI more — writing about it, testing software, and so on — and it's an area that fascinates me. Nevertheless, I am almost entirely fatigued with the conversation; everywhere I turn, there is a herald of the apocalypse telling me how doomed we all are or pitchforks bouncing to shouts about AI's new-found role in any given area. Everything has happened so quickly that we haven't had a chance to adjust, and so, everything feels rather uncertain.

AI, if properly controlled, will be just as revolutionary as many predict, with its impact far-reaching and profound. The threat to jobs is real and imminent, and photography is far from safe. As we have seen in myriad articles, videos, and Twitter threads, software such as Midjourney can already create images indistinguishable from photographs. For months, I have been able to create photorealistic results that would fool damn near anyone, photographer or otherwise, and AI image generation is only getting started.

Before I get to the one aspect of photography that is impossible for AI to get at, it's worth looking at the areas that are most at risk, because it informs the discussion.

The Areas of Photography Soon to Be Property of AI

It's funny how quickly you can go from safety to danger in the modern working world. The website Will Robots Take My Job? has been somewhere I frequent a few times per year, and photography has typically been reasonably safe. However, the site has scarcely been able to react to the rise of ChatGPT, Midjourney, and the myriad video editing, voice-over, and animation suites available. Jobs that were seen as distantly at risk, such as coding, now have many people predicting the career will be obsolete in as little as five years!

Photography has had a bizarre and tumultuous time in the past decade or two. The demand for photographs was always on a low simmer until the internet, when it rose sharply, and then, social media happened, when it went parabolic. Photography certainly felt safe from AI threats too, until Midjourney. Now, many areas of photography are under direct threat. In fact, they're teetering on the edge of being replaced as we speak.

For example, product, corporate headshots, and stock photography are all on the chopping board. Stock photography has been on a rapid decline for over a decade, so this is no real surprise, but organizations looking to furnish articles, pamphlets, pitch decks, or any other content with reasonably generic images can now do so for more or less free. Why would you pay $100 for a photograph of someone working at a laptop in a coffee shop — an image many others can use too — when you can get a bespoke version instantly and for almost no cost?

Any photography that simply "does a job" — window dressing, documenting something basic, etc. — is on its last legs. As somebody who has created product imagery of high-end, luxury watches, I could tell that the images that do not involve a person were being outsourced to CGI several years ago, AI is just the deathblow.

This all sounds like more heralding, but that's not the case: it's a lay of the land that is very much "adapt or die," unfortunately. However, the encroaching metal hands of financial destruction cannot reach all facets of the craft.

The Human Connection

There is a fascinating ethical discussion around AI at the moment that is on the future of genuine, human-like relationships with AI. That is, AI could be programmed to be a friend that perfectly suit a person's personality, and although you would never talk to them in the flesh, they could provide incredible companionship digitally. Make of that what you will, AI still is nowhere near ready to replace a hug from a parent or the electric eye contact from a crush. This situation is analogous to photography and AI.

The genres mentioned in the section above are undoubtedly in severe jeopardy. However, there are areas of photography where the human connection is paramount. For example, let's look at wedding photography. Although, undoubtedly, if AI could create images of the day based on modeling the guests and the venue, some couples might go for it, almost all wouldn't. Couples want the moments captured and preserved, not a simulation. This applies to any type of photography that gets back to the roots of the craft: capturing moments. Although AI may find ways to augment the process, the photography cannot currently be replaced.

There is a related point to this that plays a role too: the photographer themselves. There is something to be said about the artist behind the camera that has driven the one-percenters for decades. Look at Annie Leibowitz and her portraits of some of the most famous or important people on the planet. If you believe that no other photographer could take images of her standard, you're fooling yourself. The photographs are great, but the allure is the artist behind them and all that it brings. It's the reason "handmade" can be such a valuable marketing term and behind-the-scenes videos of an artisan craftsman have people desperate to part with their cash for everything from art to a pair of scissors. If you needed a portrait of yourself and could afford Annie Leibowitz to photograph you, would you settle for AI mimicking Leibowitz' work? There's no prestige in that.

Whenever ease and affordability are the two foremost driving factors, AI will take the lead, but in photography, the things we care about, that we want to cherish, that we feel something for, well, AI cannot touch those. There are still times where the artist is an important component to the work too — thankfully — and a cheap imitation, however accurate it might be, just won't cut the mustard for most.

What genres of photography do you think are the most and the least at risk from AI? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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I'm an event photographer. Comfortable that my job is safe from AI.

Great article boss

Very interesting article. You make me wonder what Annie Liebowitz would create with AI tools. Cindy Sherman has done very intetesting and creative work using a lot of digital manipulation in her selfies. Perhaps photography that isn't creativity centered (most headshots, I'd venture) is that which will all be mechanized.

AI cannot touch photography-
Because AI is not Photography.
AI is nothing but an illustration technique.At the most the loss may be for illustrators who use sketching and colouring. AI could be a good tool for them.
Photography may lose its place in illustration but not in adhering to authentic representation, documentation and memories.

What's interesting is that photography had only gained it's dominance of illustration only within living memory. I remember when most advertising and magazine covers were artistic illustrations. I nearly went into commercial illustration myself, but the handwriting for commercial art was on the wall by the time I was in high school.

I'm not sanguine that most people won't be happy with fantasy wedding and other illustrations of their lives. In five years or less, when people are able to convert cell phone shots of their friends taken at the park into a fantasy wedding at St Tropez posted in social media...I think a heck of a lot of people are going to do that, and, yes, live with that fantasy for years without remorse. I think that's where society is headed.

But there will be a market niche that values verité, just like there is a niche of music lovers who prefer a small acoustical ensemble to a Beyonce concert.

A stocky point with Ai and commercial photography is copyright. Lets say starbucks used that image of the guy in the coffee shop, at this point any other company could take that exact image and say something mean about starbucks. I don't think companies are going to want the risk of there ad showing up next to the exact same image with someone else's branding on it.

I work in a number of genres (not weddings). I apologise for digressing from the AI main issue but what I have found is tightly bound to technology in general and the burgeoning AI ecosystem in particular. Pictures no longer last forever. The stuff that most shooters are capturing now days has a very definite Best Before date. Social media demands fresh visual material every second of every day. Yay