A picture of an android just won a place at the UK’s National Portrait Gallery

Is this real life?
Is this real life?
Image: Maija Tammi
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The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a prestigious international competition whose winners are exhibited at London’s National Portrait Gallery, gives artists only a few constraints: the portraits have to be of people.

“‘Portrait’ may be interpreted in its widest sense, of ‘photography concerned with portraying people with an emphasis on their identity as individuals,’” the official rules state. “All photographs must have been taken by the entrant from life and with a living sitter.”

In an unusual move, the judges chose to bend the rules this year when they realized that one of the best representations of individual identity challenged the very definition of an “individual.”

A photograph of an android named Erica has just been awarded third place in the annual competition, along with a prize for the best work by an artist under 35. (The shortlist was announced in September.)

The image of Erica, whom creator Hiroshi Ishiguro described in a documentary as “the most beautiful and most humanlike autonomous robot in the world,” is part of Finnish artist Maija Tammi’s series “One of Them Is Human #1.” Tammi took the photograph during a 30-minute visit with Erica and a researcher in Osaka University’s Intelligent Robotics Laboratory in Japan, where the android lives.

Tammi said she disclosed that the subject was a robot in the written portion of the entry, but judges had access to only the image and its title during the initial evaluation process. The ambiguity added to the picture’s intrigue, the judges said in a statement, and prompted a discussion at the gallery about what constitutes a “living” subject in an age of artificial intelligence.

“The gallery has decided not to disqualify this portrait though accepts it is in breach of the rules. The rules are reviewed every year and this issue will be taken into consideration for next year,” the judges said in a statement to the BBC. “There are occasions when particularly compelling portraits raise interesting questions about the genre of portraiture, and these may be included at the judges’ discretion.”

Not everyone loves it: “Erica, alas, looks too synthetic and soulless to convince me that this is a great portrait,” photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote in the Guardian. But it has sparked a debate about what it means to be human, which is precisely what the photographer intended.

The image explores the fundamental question Tammi explores in her work, she told the Evening Standard: “What is being a human, what does it mean? To behave humanly? To have human genes? Or…?”