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Is this the future of fashion photography, Sevda Albers?
Why the photographer and coder hopes for an AI moratorium
Since the end of May, Sevda Albers has been posting AI-generated fashion photography on her Instagram. Her images are some of the best I've seen in the field so far, and she has managed to translate her own signature into the virtual in a unique way. Sevda has lived and worked as a photographer and creative director in London and Stockholm and is now based in Hamburg, Germany. She works for commercial and editorial clients such as Matchesfashion, Hessnatur, Nylon, Vogue, Grazia and L'Officiel. For dots per inch we talked about AI models, the beauty of numbers, and the changing role of photography in the industry.
FS You're an art director and fashion photographer, how did you get started with Generative AI?
SA I knew that generated images existed, but I didn't think much of them. However, as I came across more and more AI in the news, I became curious to know more about it. At one point, I checked on YouTube what programs were being used to generate images and tried a few - it just spat out random images! That sparked my ambition - I wanted to generate images that looked like my own. I wanted to know what kind of programs they were and how they functioned. I used to be a coder, and I was pretty good at it.
FS You were a coder?
SA I originally studied to be a kindergarten teacher, but I quit after the year of certification. I saw an advertisement on the university’s job board: “Internet music station seeks interns”. That was when the internet was just taking off. I went to the interview and said: I don't know what you do, but I absolutely want to participate. After my internship, things progressed very quickly: I worked at Stern online, then as a coder at Razorfish, at Fork, at BBDO. When the internet became more visual, I also started art directing.
FS Did this background help you understand Generative AI?
SA Definitely! I see a lot of parallels. Generated images always look the same in default mode, which is due to the technology in the backend. When I first started generating images, like any photographer, I prompted photographic terms. Until I realized, no, this is a computer, you have to talk to it like a computer. Now I don't write my prompts myself, I get them scripted. ChatGPT and Midjourney work very well together. After all, prompting is like writing code: You have to set certain parameters to get good results.
FS So it's a rather “un-visual” process.
SA Yes and no. There is a certain beauty in the numbers. A lot of people think that programming is not creative. But you need many different creative approaches to achieve what you want. Being a visual person helps with the photo concept and composition.
FS How long did it take for the images to look like something you would photograph?
SA The results looked very good very quickly, but that wasn't my approach. I wanted them to look like my pictures in terms of tone of voice, and that was really hard to achieve. Also, I wanted a Turkish high fashion model because I'm Turkish and I've never met one in the industry. I thought I could finally work with a Turkish girl. But that was really the hardest thing I've done so far with Midjourney.
SA The programs are based on reality. Midjourney is a computer program that is trained on what exists on the internet. And if there is no Turkish fashion model, what should it spit out?
FS And how did you make it work?
SA I'm not going to tell you. It took me so much work to figure it out. But that's what I mean, you have to get creative. In fact, I sat on it for two days hacking it. But now she exists.
FS Can you imagine producing AI campaigns and editorials?
SA I'm very cautious at the moment and want to see what happens first. I can imagine doing individual campaigns like that - if it's something cool. What I can’t imagine is doing this full time and prompting ten hours a day. That job will be there soon and I don't see myself doing it.
FS Why not?
SA Because you must be very precise, like in programming: You make some little mistake, a wrong comma, a missing colon, and it doesn't work. And then you must search for the error and go through all the source code again and again. It's just exhausting.
FS What kind of response did you get when you started sharing the images?
SA Most of the response has been very positive. A lot of people are in awe, they ask how I do it, what tool I work with, do I offer courses? But there are also those who say, this is so soulless, why am I doing this? Then there was an art buyer who asked why my models are so thin. That made me realize that a lot of people still don't understand how Generative AI works. I don’t prompt for thin girls. When I prompt "street style fashion models off duty in Paris", what I get are thin models, because that's still the sad reality.
FS Digitalisation has been a topic in fashion for quite some time. I noticed the first signs a bit before and during Covid, when digital influencers and models suddenly appeared on magazine covers. Since then, a lot of big brands have worked with CGI and AI models. Why is the fashion industry so open to AI?
SA Well, it's not true that this has only just started. H&M already used digital models ten years ago with Looklet. But they got a shitstorm, so they stopped. Ever since, the big brands have been afraid that they would be bashed in the same way.
FS Has that changed?
SA When Levis recently used Lalaland's AI-generated models, they also got a shitstorm. I'm sure a lot of brands are now using AI models in their online stores without people knowing. I work in the industry and I know what it looks like. If, for example, a pair of jeans isn't displayed correctly, I get sceptical: it's against all the rules of e-commerce that you can't recognize the fabric. In some stores, for example Zara, I suspect that they're testing AI in the background: the images change, it's like this one week, like that the other week. And I have heard several times that campaigns have been done with AI, even in Germany. But nobody wants to talk about it. I even saw AI models in a small US indie shop. I didn't notice it at first, but then I thought, "Huh, the models all look the same". And then I looked at the source code to see what platform they were using, and it was Shopify, which is a very, very big e-commerce platform. They're now offering AI models.
FS Do you think that's the future?
SA If Shopify is already doing that in the US, Germany is just behind. Shopify is the biggest e-commerce platform, that's where Kendall Jenner sells her make-up and Jeffree Star has his online store. It's not the future, it's already here.
FS Do you notice things like that more now that you've engaged with it yourself?
SA I have to admit that sometimes I suspect something is AI, and then I ask them, and it's not AI. But then I think: from a super neutral point of view, what's the point of taking pictures today that could be AI?
FS Do you think brands should at least label generated images then?
SA We don’t label TikTok filters, but our food packaging photos are labelled “for illustration purposes only” - who cares if it is there or not? The other day I walked past a giant billboard showing happy cows promoting dairy products. What's more fictional than that?
We are bombarded all the time with images that do not show reality. It's more about what we as a society want to see and how we want to use technology and image-making. Because at the end of the day, labelling doesn't change anything. Everybody knows that's not how cows live.
FS But you have a big AI label on your own posts?
SA Yes, because I've gotten a lot of comments where people thought they were real photos.
FS I worked in advertising for a while, and I was shocked at the way they produced. I mean, just the fact that summer campaigns are produced in the winter and then whole crews are flown around the planet. Can AI change the fashion industry for the better?
SA Well, it might be more sustainable to produce e-commerce images with AI. But the whole system is not sustainable, so it won't change that. The same goes for claims of diversity: Lalaland, the AI company behind the Levis imagery, claims in the teaser: we are diverse and sustainable. And then they shoot something on a white model and turn it into a black model. That triggers a lot of feelings in me (laughs).
FS You're not buying it?
SA I believe Lalaland's intention was genuine. They are two very young founders who are also diverse themselves. They have a different mindset than old white men, for example. Most European Gen Z's grow up with a different attitude towards diversity, they are more open and less stereotypical. Unfortunately, that doesn't apply to the rest of the world; POC models are still not the norm and if you're going to showcase POC, you should book and pay them equally. That would be diverse equality.
FS What do you think you can contribute as a fashion photographer in the future?
SA I don't think I have anything to contribute on the technical side. Just look at how big e-commerce retailers are using AI now. They use the best clicking model that sells the most for the products that make the best margins. Everything is tracked, they know user behavior and buyer behavior, all marketing research, how people see, what contrasts they perceive, what their favorite colors are, the AI knows all that. The computer knows what sells, why shouldn't it do this well? I can't learn that much in my lifetime. What would be my role in this setup in the near future?
FS From a commercial point of view, I can follow you. But creatively, can't AI also open up new possibilities?
SA Totally, I am doing the shoots with AI that I have always wanted to do and never had the opportunity to work on. But I don't see it as my future full-time job. Mainly because I chose to be a photographer for the framework of working with amazing people.
FS Where do you see the dangers of the technology?
SA What I think hasn't got enough attention in Germany is that there's this Open AI letter and a call for a six-month moratorium. I think everybody should find out what that is and how many people have already signed that. Because the question is not whether we're going to label everything or what's going to happen to our jobs. The question is so much bigger.
Read “The Numerous Questions Around The Rise Of CGI Models And Influencers” by Alice Newbold for Vogue UK, August 2018
Overview of the Levis & Lalaland controversy
On June 14, 2023 Google introduced a virtual try-on tool based on Generative AI
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