Yes, you’re right, the issue centers on the public perception of who McCurry is as a photographer. To be sure, McCurry has the right to venture into any aspect of photography. So in one sense, there’s nothing truly wrong with his highly edited endeavors.
However, much of McCurry’s following public still perceive him as a photojournalist-documentarian, and understandably so.
This in turn raises the question at what point is McCurry obligated to announce a shift, should any obligation exists in the first place.
And did McCurry purposely exploit the public’s longstanding perception to create manipulated images while knowing that most of his viewers continued to define them as reportage. If this is the case, and it may not be, then it’s McCurry’s deliberately deceptive intentions that are more disconcerting than the photos themselves.
We can cynically write off “journalistic integrity” and photographic truth, and after all, I’m of the belief that photos, without accompanying explanatory text, do NOT tell a story. I also realize that even if not markedly manipulated, a photo’s lack of context can lead to mass misinterpretation and serve as an effective propaganda mechanism.
Still, this does not absolve our responsibility to ensure that deception is minimized in regards to the press, especially given manipulative post processing’s increasing ease and sophistication.
And while issues of contrast or saturation may kick up reasonable debate, removing a human or two from the center of a photo, as McCurry did, obviously and absolutely violates journalistic rules. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.
Again, if McCurry wants to be a ‘visual illustrator,’ that’s his prerogative. But while the “Afghan girl” photo will always remain remarkable, how would McCurry’s most ardent supporters feel if they discovered that the subject’s eyes had been substituted in.