But there’s also an upside to how AI is changing our relationship with the images around us, says Tom Ashe, chair of the digital photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. “Integrating these tools into our phones further democratizes people’s ability to create the image they want, rather than settling for what they were shown in the original shot. “It feels like an evolution,” he says. The advantage of AI, Ashe adds, is a “healthy skepticism about our idea of the photo as a document of objective truth.”
Sometime In our rush into the future, camera phone features became the main selling point for many consumers addicted to the anesthesia of social media, a contract that promised a touch of micro-fame in exchange for uninterrupted self-expression. To sell their version of an ideal lifestyle—as so many influencers rushed to do while cashing in on brand deals—you had to look good. For many people, that started with the camera technology in their phone.
As apps like Instagram and Snapchat found overwhelming user bases in the mid-2010s, they introduced a socializing aesthetic based on visual presentation. Everyone, even those who would never admit it, wanted to be seen, liked, and shared on feeds. The use of filters became synonymous with a perverse form of visual automation. FaceTune grew in popularity, and soon VSCO Girl and Instagram Face became the defining archetypes of a Millennial generation that didn’t know how to unplug and was glued to the reflection of their screens.
I was one of that horde, fluent in thirst trap modernism and wanting to be seen, even if I didn’t fully understand why. There was a rush to achieve an idealized look, as it was and remains, in part, the currency of digital exchange. With every click on my iPhone, I perfected my viewing angles. We all understood: beauty was capital, and everyone wanted to be rich.
The aesthetics of online social life reinforced old racial imbalances in beauty, but also opened up space for women of color, in particular, to have representative agency, says Derrick Conrad Murray, a professor at UC Santa Cruz who specializes in art history and visual specialized in culture. “Self-expression and social media have enabled many women of color to challenge cultural industries that support beauty standards that have traditionally ignored and demeaned them,” he says.
This is also the remarkable promise of AI – it shifts the axis by which objective truth is measured. It has the power to challenge the way we see images and the people in them, forcing us to better question a person’s version of reality and, in turn, our own. It’s likely that devices like the Pixel 8 will increase the influx of fake images into an optimization-addicted society, pollute the avenues of visual communication and add even louder to the already widespread misinformation permeating our digital hangouts. But what’s happening now, Murray says, has been happening for as long as photography has been used to capture the realities that color our world.
“With the advent of digital image manipulation, there was a panic that photography was dead. Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Murray. “The medium has always been manipulated and often used to create elaborate deceptions. Now we are at a moment in which the photograph has infinite mutability.”
In our rush to refine and manipulate things to make things easier, generative AI presents a challenge: embrace bias. Live in the mutability of the photographic illusion, but stay diligent, because the future is a playground of constant knowing and not knowing, of unraveling and remaking.