This girl does not exist

How generative AI is destroying commercial art and killing an industry

4 min readMay 8, 2024

(This is an expansion of a Twitter thread)

I was playing around with new Photoshop beta and its generative AI is simultaneously awe-inspiring and terrifying. It can create convincing photos with just a text prompt.

As budgets for art directors get cut, why wouldn’t they skip hiring a photographer or illustrator, or digging through stock photo libraries, and just generate the image they’re looking for? An entire industry is going to be enshittified and homogenized and countless freelancers will see their work evaporate. This is future shock.

Let’s consider an example.

You, art director of a magazine, get a request from your boss for a photo of a young girl that is reminiscent of Sharbat Gula, the famous “Afghan Girl,” by Steve McCurry that appeared on the cover of National Geographic. You could search for the right model to capture your vision, hire a photographer and a makeup artist, find an appropriate location, and set up the shoot.

Or you could open up Photoshop, enter a prompt, maybe photo of young African American girl in bright clothes staring intently at the viewer and use McCurry’s famous photo as a “reference” image (a new option in Photoshop that allows you to, well, steal the look and feel of any image you can download to your laptop).

And … voilà.

This girl does not exist.

This girl does not exist. She is a composite of real photos, taken by real photographers, digested by Adobe Firefly and Frankensteined together by an algorithm. But if you are looking at the magazine, would you know that? I bet you would not—there’s no uncanny valley here.

Not to mention, the Adobe algorithm’s idea of an African American girl might be a little … off.

Cost of photographer, location, model, production to get a similar image? Hundreds, at minimum, but likely thousands of dollars and lots of human effort.

Cost of this striking image? Adobe Creative Suite subscription and about 30 seconds of time waiting for the prompt to hit the server and generate the image. What would you do as an overworked, stressed art director with the corporate suits breathing down your neck to cut costs?

So you decide it’s a pretty good fit for the article. You drop the photo in Slack and wait for your boss to weigh in.

“Give her blue eyes, like the famous photo,” your boss says. “And let’s make it sadder. She’s a refugee, add some tents or something. We need this to hit our readers in the feels so they respond to the CTA.”

You draw around her eyes with the select tool and type striking blue eyes. Then select the background and type in refugee camp tents.

Neither are the tents.

Slack’s knock-brush alerts you to a new message.

“Not sad enough, it looks like she’s at Burning Man,” your boss says. “Maybe put some trash behind her.”

A few minutes later you get a reply. “Bingo! Nailed it.”

Much sadder.

In under 20 minutes, you’ve created a striking, utterly realistic and compelling image from your desk chair. It’s magic, isn’t it? What is magic, after all, but wishing for something and having it materialize in front of you? Without having to do much in the way of actual work?

I’ve worked with art directors, at print magazines (remember those?), nonprofits, ad agencies, and digital publications. They have networks of specialists—photographers, makeup artists, location professionals, fashion and clothing experts …

All gone in a click.

I know it’s considered archaic and even laughable to bemoan the loss of people’s jobs and even entire industries. Disruption is good, I’m told by the tech cognoscenti breaking things to make themselves richer.

I can think of a prompt for that, too.

Disruption is fun—and profitable!

Michael M. Hughes is a writer, speaker, and magical thinker. He is the author of Magic for the Resistance: Rituals and Spells for Change, the Blackwater Lights Trilogy, as well as numerous other works of fiction and nonfiction, and he speaks and teaches classes on magic, tarot, pop culture, psychedelics, and more.

His comprehensive tarot course, The Art and Magic of the Tarot: Foundations, is available here, as well as his new course on Tarot Magic.

Michael’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, CNN, The L.A. Times, Rolling Stone, Comedy Central, Wired, Elle,Vox, Cosmopolitan,and even the ultraconservative The American Spectator,which wrote: “He may play footsie with the devil, but at least the man has a sense of humor.”

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