Here's the message that's distorted. It's the same message ever photograph carries. Ready for it?
This is what it looked like
Fundamentally, that's all a photograph ever really says.
One has to take this sort of allegorically, of course. As noted by many others it wasn't that small, nor was it flat, and there was more of it outside the rectangle, and the color was different etc etc. For each viewer specifically, any given picture either will or will not pass a basic "that's pretty much what it looked like" test. Generally, most people will agree, roughly. There are going to be some pictures that we disagree on, but most things most people will line up on the same side.
Removing a dude from a motor scooter definitely will make most people line up on the "didn't look like that"
McCurry is, of course, presenting a bullshit notion of certain areas of the world. They're austere, beautiful, somewhat gloomy, and have more contrast than we experience in the USA, possibly because the Sun is much much closer to India than it is to Chicago. He deletes smiling people, he deletes extra people, and so on.
It didn't look like, it doesn't look like that. Not in an individual picture, and not as a body of work.
Ok, whatever, so what. It's Art! Furthermore, everyone assumes that everything in Photoshopped these days, don't they?
Here's the really important observation I made.
People view paintings in a certain way. The understand that paintings are not literal, that it is normal for a painting to fail the "did it look like that" test. A painting is, in it very essence, not literally true to the scene. It's built in.
People, today, view photographs similarly, they assume that photographs are not in general literally true. The distinction is this: this default assumption is that most photographs are false, that they are lies. This is partly, I think, due to the fact that historically photographs have been edited heavily to reinforce larger political lies. It is also partly because photographs, as I say over and over, are essentially rooted in a kind of literal truth to the scene.
So, people see paintings and accept without rancor that they're probably not true to the scene. They see photographs and arrive at the same conclusion, but they describe it as a lie, a fake, a falsehood.
Universal acceptance of the basic un-literalness of photographs does not place photography into the same mental box we place painting. It almost does, but not quite. It places photography as a whole into a mental box labelled "probably fake, not literal" whereas paintings just get filed under "probably not literal."
It's a subtle distinction, I guess. But I think it matters.