Real, Not AI


March 2023
There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the rise of AI, and for good reason.  The explosion in platforms and growth of their capability presents real-world concerns across the board. While I don’t think they have, my kids could have some bot write their next paper for school. Some news outlets have turned to […]

There’s been a lot of chatter recently about the rise of AI, and for good reason. 

The explosion in platforms and growth of their capability presents real-world concerns across the board. While I don’t think they have, my kids could have some bot write their next paper for school. Some news outlets have turned to outsourcing articles to AI, often with less-than-stellar results. And, of course, using the tools of DALL-E, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, and myriad others, anyone can type a prompt and - theoretically at least - get a resulting image in seconds. And, they might even win an award for it. 

Prayer flags flutter at sunrise above Khumbu Basecamp on Mount Everest with Cholatse and Tawoche in the background.

Understandably, this explosion has caused many - especially in the creative world - to foresee an end of days, a pending cataclysm for creativity. While well founded, it’s probably more than a bit premature for many reasons. First and foremost, thus far all AI generators require human creative input to generate anything; the better the input, the more creative, thoughtful, refined the “prompt,” the better the result. (Read this article from Wired and this one from The Guardian for more on this aspect.) But, tied into this is the idea that no matter how good AI is, or gets, it can only build upon what is already out there, generically synthesizing and regurgitating amalgams of what came before. As Rumman Chowdhury said on Science Friday recently:

…AI can just continue to generate Taylor Swift songs every day until the end of time…[making] very Taylor Swifty Taylor Swift songs. It is not going to be new, or different, or fresh. It’s just going to be a rehash of what we know.

- Rumman Chowdhury on Science Friday, February 10, 2023

More importantly, at least from my perspective, is that AI - no matter how developed, how powerful, how nuanced and programmed and populated it becomes - will never have the foundational components to creativity: experience and story. 

Behind each photograph - real ones, not robot-generated syntheses - lies a story, an experience, a visceral interaction with the world replete with emotion and feeling, sight, smell, and sound, thrill and danger and love and hate and worry and fear and more. For me, photography and it’s corollary, writing, has always been less a visual or verbal means to a cerebral end, and more the translation of experience - real experience - and interpretation of what meaning that experience held. 

And that is something no AI can generate…yet. 

So, to that end, I’m going to share from time to time some not AI images and their corresponding stories. Below is Round 1 of “Real, Not AI.”

Dave Hahn leads a group of climbers into the Khumbu Icefall in early morning with Pumori rising behind.

In 2002, I was asked by Discovery to return to Everest for my third expedition. This time, we’d be going to the Southeast Ridge, a route I had yet to visit. I was excited, but also daunted: I was shooting for Discovery, my first real assignment, and needed to live up to and into the challenge.  

For weeks beforehand, I pored over imagery of prior expeditions, seeing what had been captured, how stories had been told, and seeking to find new ways to show and share a place and experience that had been shown and shared countless times before.  

One of my big questions was how to show the Khumbu Icefall, that absurd jungle-gym on steroids at the base of the route. It’s a realm of crumbling, tumbling house-sized blocks of ice bifurcated by myriad crevasses, deep, dark, and foreboding. The Icefall is at once a place of terror and excitement, deep fear and profound enjoyment. I wanted to show some of that, bring a fresh perspective to it all, and take the viewer into the experience - good, bad, and indifferent.  

If there’s one thing people think of when they hear about the Icefall it’s often the ladders. Ladders, often many sections of them lashed together with fixed line, spanning the maw of gaping crevasses. Crossing them is Type II fun at it’s finest - an experience that brings joy only when it is finished, safely in the rearview mirror. I knew I needed to show the ladders of the Khumbu Icefall in a new light, I needed to do something different.  

I finally landed on an idea: I had seen countless images of ladders and crevasses, some taken from the side, some straight down, some from far above. But, perhaps understandably, I had yet to see an image taken from below, from inside a crevasse looking outward, upward from the depths. That was it.  

Climbers cross a ladder in the lower Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest.

It took some time to find the “right” crevasse, one that was big enough with a false bottom for me to stand on, and that had a bigger crevasse uphill of it…big enough to catch anything that fell from above. After a day of hunting, I finally found one that would work: a gaping hole of polished blue ice spanned by a three-section ladder roughly 1/3 of the way through the Icefall.  

It took some time to find the “right” crevasse. I started off with our team at dawn, moving slowly into the Icefall. Not 30 minutes into the real meat of the climb, the mountain fired a warning shot across our collective bows with a sizeable avalanche breaking off the West Shoulder and coming more than too close for comfort. I realized my plan was not as simple as first conceived: Not only would I need a big crevasse with a false bottom, angled so that I could get some sun and backlight, but I would also need it to have a bigger crevasse uphill of it…big enough to catch anything that fell from above. After considerable hunting I finally found one that would work: a gaping hole of polished blue ice spanned by a three-section ladder roughly 1/3 of the way through the Icefall. As the team continued upward for some training, I built an anchor and rappelled down into the depths.  

Climbers watch a huge avalanche come by - too close for comfort - in the Khumbu Icefall on Mt. Everest, Nepal.

It was stunning. I had made unplanned trips into crevasses before, but those events were always ones of heart-pulsing anxiety. This time, it was different. I went down on plan, making a little nest on the false bottom and exploring the ice world. The sun began to catch one wall of the hole, reflecting light downward, casting everything in an arctic blue. At first, the silence was overwhelming, unnerving, the ice walls around me choking off all noise of the outside (upside?) world. But soon I realized there was no silence here, but a symphony. Deep in a glacier there is massive activity. I sat silently, listening to the ice rumble and crack, deep primordial groans of ancient earth scultping. Icicles broke free from above as their attachments weakened in the morning sun, their tinkling bits echoing through my lair while they fell deep into the abyss. And the water…tons of it, dripping and splashing lightly at my level while down in the depths it roared, torrents of ice melt gushing in sub-glacial rivers far below my feet.  

I was mesmerized, in a somewhat hypnotic state, entranced by the ice world surrounding me.  

“Dajou! Ke bhayo?” a voice hollered from above, breaking me from my reverie.  

View from below as a climber crosses a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, Nepal.

It was a Sherpa from another team, surprised to see a person standing silently, happily, far below the ladder he was crossing. I assured him I was alright, that I was down here on purpose, and he reluctantly continued on his way, head shaking.  

Coming back to reality, out of my fixation on the orgy of sight and sound surrounding me, I realized it was time to focus and get some shots. Things were warming quickly, disconcertingly, water transitioning from drips to rivulets cascading and carving the icy walls. It was nearly time to go, to get out of the hole and back to terra-quasi-firma before things became too slushy…but my team had yet to return.  

So, I waited, fidgeting, listening to the slow decomposition of the glacier, wondering where the team was. And, suddenly, they were there. Karma Rita appeared first, trotting across the ladder far overhead like it was a sidewalk, chastizing me for being raksi laagyo (drunk) as he passed, laughing.  

Their delay was my boon, as now the sun had moved over to the center of the crevasse. With a bit of adjustment in the hole, I could frame them up with a nice backlight, a bit of a halo, while the walls of the crevasse would act as a big reflector, casting enough light on my subjects so they wouldn’t be total silhouettes.  

I clicked away as they crossed above, adjusting my position as best I could and hoping for the best. The idea worked, yielding a series of pretty good shots from a new perspective - and a new experience and adventure for me.

Ngawang Sherpa crosses a massive crevasse on a ladder; at 18,000 feet in the Khumbu Icefall, Everest, Nepal.

7 comments on “Real, Not AI”

  1. These are fantastic shots, taken from a truly original angle. Bravo, Jake!

    As for ChatBot et al, my main concern is copyright infringement. These apps have to lift from original documents across the Internet, and someone wrote them or paid to have them written, thus ownership comes into play. I think folks have already wrestled with this a bit in music and in photography/graphic design: how much does it have to change to be considered original? It is a supreme concern to artists, whether they write, paint, photograph, or compose. Personally, I would love to see any more development on these apps shut down. As a writer, I also agree whole-heartedly with your concern about children (and others) learning to write. As you know, it does take effort and time to learn to write well, so if people are thinking it would save time to “delegate” writing to bots, then we need to slow down and consider what we are losing when we turn that over to mindless content collectors. We already have enough content-less content (not fact-checked, not edited, and mainly not written well) being produced by humans. More than enough, actually.

    1. Thanks, Kate, for the great and thoughtful comment, and not too long at all!

      I agree 100% about the copyright issues: having had many of my images poached over the years, I can only imagine how out of control this can all be (and perhaps already is) with the mass-digesting of creator content by AI machines, turned for a tidy profit by corporate projects more concerned with the bottom line than integrity. Quite troubling indeed. The Wired article I linked to had some interesting, albeit simplistic, thoughts on that, namely that all creative content is somehow an amalgam of all that came before, as we are all influenced to one degree or another by the photos, films we've seen, books we've read, etc. But, where their argument breaks down is in the difference between one artist, one shooter, one writer creating something with perhaps-unconscious input from all they've experienced before, and the AI projects which are (a) deliberately created and directed to scrape content and regurgitate bits of it in new form, and (b) do so on a mass scale with no purpose of creation, but rather profit.

      Ugh, it's a black hole in myriad ways, and one which I fear deeply, but also hold hope that humans will in the long term see that a machine cannot truly create, and that we need to cherish that very unique trait. I probably won't hold my breath, though.

      Thanks again, and hope all is well!

  2. A perfect example of the "artificial reality" that can be manufactured was the DJI commercial ad of the "supposed" launching of the drone from the summit of Everest(link below). I was involved in a lengthy debate on Reddit, a few after the ad came out, about the authenticity of the claims made by DJI. Much of that ad is CGI or "computer editing!"

    I don't have time or space to get into the issues of the video, but, it would be interesting Jake to see what conclusions Renan has with regard to the video. Just a couple of things to look for in the video: 1)Where is the queue of climbers trailing down from the summit? 2)Notice the "straight-line" as a substitute for where the climbers steps should be! 3)Look at the artificial lighting and color-enhanced terrain on some of the footage!

    The extent and development of computerized "deepfakes" is substantial, and has expanded to the point where, a video just like this one, can be created "on a keyboard," and the majority of people are clueless about what they have seen.

    Great article and topic Jake! Other than the DJI marketing video, I put a few other links below; a couple that give a synopsis of "deepfake" technology, and the other to an excellent book I've read that you might be interested in by Hubert Dreyfus called 'What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique Of Artificial Reason'. He use to teach at MIT, and would get into lengthy debates with all the professorial computer geeks on campus about the limitations of AI. In a world where people think computers/technology can do everything, I think his insights are important.

    Take care Jake!

    1. Hi Ed,

      Thanks for all of this! Looking forward to digging into the drone footage as well as all the other items you shared. It's a strange new world we find ourselves in these days!

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