Princess Diana with wrinkles and a bearded MJ: How a photographer used AI to bring dead celebrities to ‘life’
Turkish lawyer and photographer Alper Yesiltas’ series As If Nothing Happened imagines what it would have been like if some of our favourite celebrities who died young had lived on
When Turkish lawyer and photographer Alper Yesiltas unveiled a series of photographs, As If Nothing Happened, using AI tools, he decided to feature celebrities whose youthful spark is etched in our minds. There are many of them, like Princess Diana, Hollywood actor Heath Ledger and Nirvana’s lead vocalist and guitarist Kurt Cobain, who passed away in the prime of their lives. Portraying them as aged icons has only brought back memories of their legacies whilst showcasing the immense possibilities AI tools can offer to photography. In an interview, Yesiltas talks at length about why he decided to create the series that has turned us so nostalgic.
You are a lawyer. What drew you towards the world of photography?
I have been in digital photography since the first year of law school, but since I did my masters in IT law and artificial intelligence, I had the opportunity to study different aspects of the art of photography.
What led you to work on the series, As If Nothing Happened?
With the development of AI technology, I have been excited for a while, thinking that “anything imaginable can be shown in reality”. When I started tinkering with technology, I saw what I could do and thought about what would make me happiest. I wanted to see some of the people I missed again in front of me and that’s how As If Nothing Happened emerged.
How did your creativity and use of technology complement each other in the series?
I am using various software. Some for obtaining realistic textures and light, others for photo editing. The most important part of the process is making the image I am processing look realistic to me. Intentionally or unintentionally, I know a lot about the person I am working with. Naturally, the moment I like the most is when I think the image in front of me is looking ‘real’. I think technology and AI-based applications make photography pre-defined as they evolve with the help of what they learn from humans. In addition, when AI is used manually, not automatically, the emotion comes back and becomes stronger. For this reason, I prefer the controlled use of AI. For example, these tools scan subjects from various photos, enhance, upscale and sharpen the image. But when it comes to transforming them, I take control in order to achieve what will make it look “real”.
Some of the icons you have captured in the series represent the possibilities of youth. Why was it imperative for you to make them look old?
I believe at times, emotions take precedence over techniques, terms and distinctions. This is where I come from. That’s also at the heart of this project — wondering what old age is about and projecting it naturally. I wanted to see what they would look like if nothing had happened.
How did you choose the original image and which one turned out to be most fascinating to you? How long did it take you to complete the series?
So, I start from a point where I wish s/he would always stay that way. The time I spend with a single image varies, but I would say it takes a while to complete it.
In one of the interviews, you mention that it’s extremely important to you for the images to feel ‘real’. How do you arrive at that point?
I watch the people I work on for a very long time. In fact, I memorise all their facial expressions. Therefore, the finished work makes me say either yes or no.
The Diana image, in particular, has resonated widely. Could you describe what went into the making of that image?
Thinking about the possibility that Diana decided to live on a Greek island when she was young, I produced this work. However, my favourite picture from the series is one on Michael Jackson, which was the first work I completed. He looked natural and almost real to me.
Madonna is one of the few living legends you have captured in the series.
I love Madonna. I just wanted to be critical of some of the choices she has made in an artistic way.
A word of advice to avid photographers who are also attempting to embrace AI in photography.
Just imagine. You’re lucky that you have tons of different software, and are in a position to always experiment.
(All photos are courtesy of Alper Yesiltas)