None of these people pictured at the Houston rodeo are real

None of these people pictured at the Houston rodeo are real
None of these people pictured at the Houston rodeo are real

A series of photos depicting beautiful, well-dressed black women and men enjoying the 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo caught the eye of tens of thousands on social media this week. There’s just one catch, though: none of the people in the photos are real.

The images, which have been shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook, were created by Washington, DC-based artist Shauna Jones, who used artificial intelligence technology to create the artworks. Without naming the tool she used (she didn’t want to give away her “secret sauce”), Jones explained that she simply fed text into an online AI art generator to produce the works in minutes, but also noted that she curating a coherent collection can take hours or days.

“Basically, you’re a literary artist because it’s the story you’re telling that creates the image,” Jones said. “It’s a prompt you tell the computer, like ‘a light-skinned black woman in a black dress looking happy.’ You tell a story and create incredible detail to get to production.”

While attending the Houston rodeo for the first time on Black Heritage Day with her friend, Jones said she was amazed by the beauty and style of those who participated and sought to immortalize what she witnessed through her art. But not everyone was impressed, many calling her realistic images misleading. “My work is inspired by what I saw and that’s the controversy. People can see these images really believe in this event and then go away disappointed,” she said. “But my work is what we can be, an artistic expression of what I see, or what I think we can aspire to be.”

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AI-generated artwork created by Shauna Jones depicts black men at the 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

AI-generated artwork created by Shauna Jones depicts black men at the 2023 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Shauna Jones

Earlier this year, Jones also went viral after creating a lively series inspired by her Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Jones, a 43-year-old commercial real estate banker, first discovered AI art in November after coming across AI-generated Black Panther prequel concept art made by Shaun Harrison.

“I’m not into sci-fi, so I started thinking about my own trajectory and started doing pieces that pay tribute to black people, and especially black women,” Jones said. For as long as she can remember, Jones has been drawn to telling stories through pictures, previously working as a photojournalist for her campus newspaper while attending Florida A&M University.

Today, Jones has turned her hobby of creating artificial intelligence into a side hustle, making most of her money selling her artwork. “I see so many opportunities to make this a profession, but it’s a passion,” she said. “I wouldn’t even minimize it as a hobby at this point because I think I’m a trailblazer.”

AI art went mainstream in late 2022 with apps like Lensa – which enabled users to create avatars that looked like they were produced by a digital artist simply by uploading their photos. Despite its popularity, there is a growing movement against the art form by digital artists who have raised concerns about copyright issues due to the technology scraping the web for work by other artists to create the images.

“There are definitely ethical issues and that will be fought, whether it’s the IP that owns the image, whether it’s the computer, whether it’s the creator… I’ll leave those debates to people who are legally skilled,” Jones said. “I’m here to add diversity to AI work. I have a different mission and purpose. I’m here to create and inspire.”

Sandra Zalman, an associate professor of art history at the University of Houston, says AI is also controversial for removing the hand of the artist in image making. “In that way, we can think of our reactions to AI art as similar to the reactions of the 1830s to early photography,” Zalman wrote in an email. “I don’t think it’s a question of ethics necessarily; maybe we can think about whether this technology creates a compelling visual image, what makes it compelling (or not) and why.”

Many people don’t consider AI images to be art at all, as evidenced by some of the comments Jones received in response to her rodeo series. Some poked at the unusual fingers on the models, a telltale sign that an artwork is AI-generated. “AI doesn’t do well with hands because we’ve been using facial recognition technology to take selfies for years so the computers can recognize a human face very well,” Jones said. “But the hands — you’re talking about five fingers shaped differently, different people, and they just don’t have enough [information] to perfect it yet.”

The sheer volume of criticism Jones received prompted her to respond online. “It’s brand new technology. I’m an early adopter and people are extremely critical of things they don’t understand,” she said. Some claimed that Jones misled them, although she revealed that the images were AI-generated. Others questioned why Jones didn’t post photos of actual people at the event. “I think, ‘Do you go to a painter and ask him where is the photograph?’ So there were people coming to me, identifying themselves as an AI artist, asking for the photograph of the real event?”

But not all feedback has been negative. On Tuesday, Houston’s Bun B gave his blessing on his Instagram Stories, calling Jones’ work “the greatest AI I’ve ever seen.” Jones said, “That invalidated the criticism, because if he’s in love with it himself, who else do I need? Other than maybe Beyoncé?”

Continuing to add to her Houston Rodeo lineup, Jones released new photos Wednesday of plus-size black women at the event to celebrate body positivity and “turn Black Heritage Day into Black Heritage Week.” She is also building a community with other Black creatives on Facebook in a group called Black Lens for those interested in learning how to create and share artificial intelligence. “This is technology, and we can adopt it or leave it,” Jones said. “I think, especially for black people, we’re often left behind because we’re afraid of things. I think this is the new Internet. AI is going to grow. It’s going to be the next big boom, and there are opportunities for those who are not afraid of it.”

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