Since the introduction of AI-generated headshots, many have been lamenting the inevitable end of our industry, forecasting doom and gloom across every online forum almost on a daily basis. But one photographer isn’t afraid, and in fact, he believes that AI technology is actually good for headshot photographers and ultimately will strengthen our industry.
Recently, I sat down with Scottsdale, AZ, based headshot photographer Tony Taafe to discuss his view of AI and its impact on the photography industry. To my surprise, Taafe has taken a decidedly different view of how the technology will change the headshot landscape, as he believes there are still many challenges before AI headshots can be a truly viable alternative to the genuine article, if they ever can be at all. Looking at the long-term impact, he believes that AI headshots will ultimately bolster our industry, becoming a net positive for headshot photographers after the initial excitement over the technology has waned. Here’s why.
A Security Risk
According to Taafe, “It’s a security risk. Companies, or individuals, don’t own any of the information once it’s uploaded to AI generators.”
He adds that with both of his businesses, Tony Taafe Studio and Headshot Booker, his largest clients have never once agreed to a contract that doesn’t include some control over the images taken of their employees. “Corporations who have even the slightest idea of brand protection will never agree to you photographing their employees and saying ‘We’re good with whatever you want to do with these images.’”
We're the key to authentic marketing in a world where everything will look and feel the same.
Companies we work with often request that they have exclusive usage rights to their images. I've heard photographers comment that companies do this because they want to take advantage of the photographer. They don’t. They have to protect their information and brand from outside usage.
No One Relates To Perfect
In addition to being a security risk, AI-generated headshots give a false sense of perfection. “'Show me perfect, and I will show you a liar' is a well-known marketing phrase, and if it isn’t, it should be,” Taafe says.
Large companies spend millions of dollars on marketing in order to present their brand and unique as authentic. Tony says that “the most impactful way to do this is through their people – most products can be replicated, people can’t. AI headshots completely obliterate this. It's a more sophisticated version of the iPhone emoji; people know it's fake.”
It’s a “marketing disaster” in his view, because no one relates to perfection, which AI-generated headshots attempt to create. Companies understand that clients relate to the humanness of their team members, and that even if it’s on a subconscious level, genuine photos of their employees are one of their greatest branding assets. Showcasing employees as perfect automatons does not build trust with potential clients, because it creates a first impression with them that the company is fake, or worse, obscuring the truth about their people, hence, dishonest.
Taafe believes that AI headshots are fine for those looking to garner likes and comments on social media, but not for the serious professional. This is because they not only fix every imperfection, but also change the shape of the face, create unrealistic lighting, and even place the subject in a fabricated environment. People who want this kind of photo are our “nightmare clients,” he adds.
It’s a Copyright Minefield
Perhaps the strongest argument Taafe makes against AI headshots is that they present “a copyright minefield.” Regarding working with both large and small companies, He says: “Companies we work with often request that they have exclusive usage rights to their images. I've heard photographers comment that companies do this because they want to take advantage of the photographer. They don’t. They have to protect their information and brand from outside usage.”
Taafe cited a ruling by the US Copyright Office which calls AI generated art a “completely mechanical” process with “no place for novelty, invention, or originality,” and therefore not worthy of copyright protection. He continues, “This is great news for companies who want to use the images without having to secure exclusivity, but a complete no-go for companies who need to make sure their images aren't used by anybody who wants to use them in any way they like.”
Those of us who have worked in the headshot industry know that it’s also common for companies to require photographers to sign NDAs when contracted to capture their team. These agreements often ban the photographer from not only sharing the photos online, but from even sharing social posts that include BTS images of their office space, firm name, or any other information about the company and their location. These companies don’t just value their privacy; they understand the legal implications of having their spaces and people broadcast across the internet without their consent or branding control. If they choose to use AI headshots for their team of hundreds or thousands of employees, they cede legal recourse and invite others to use images of their team members in whatever way they like, without the ability to protect themselves.
A Bright Road Ahead
Taafe told me that he is not against AI headshots. He believes they are fun and here to stay, and that they have "earned their own place on our journey."
He continues, "AI headshots are a very decent social media product; what we provide is an exceptional marketing product."
Finally, after reading and speaking with many photographers over the last year who forecast complete doom for our industry, it was refreshing to get a different perspective from Taafe. As our conversation wound down, he concluded with some encouraging words: “I genuinely believe that headshot photography, even with a potential short term rollercoaster of companies who dip their toes in the AI water, will come out of this stronger and even more valuable than it is today.”
“We're the key to authentic marketing in a world where everything will look and feel the same.”