No individual photo explains anything. That’s what makes photography such a wonderful and problematic medium. It is the photographer’s job to get this medium to say what you need it to say. Because photography has a certain verisimilitude, it has gained a currency as truthful—but photographs have always been convincing lies.
Photography has always been capable of manipulation. Even more subtle and more invidious is the fact that any time you put a frame to the world, it’s an interpretation. I could get my camera and point it at two people and not point it at the homeless third person to the right of the frame, or not include the murder that’s going on to the left of the frame. You take 35 degrees out of 360 degrees and call it a photo. There’s an infinite number of ways you can do this: photographs have always been authored.
Some of the people who are now manipulating photos, such as Andreas Gursky, make the argument—rightly—that the “straight” photographs of the 1940s and 50s were no such thing. Ansel Adams would slap a red filter on his lens, then spend three days burning and dodging in the dark room, making his prints. That’s a manipulation. Even the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, with all due respect to him, are notoriously burned and dodged.