Several months ago, I wrote about an exhibit - Faking It: Life Before Photoshop - that prompted a heated (and fruitless) discussion with a friend and some useful soul-searching on my part. I was reminded of it again for two reasons - one, the exhibit is now here in the District of Columbia and two, the recent controversy surrounding some prize-winning photographs. I said then that the question of whether or not our photographs are 'manipulated' is a bogus question, confusing more than it illuminates. Even the word we use is loaded with a negative value judgment - manipulated, not processed. Unfortunately, the Met exhibit does not help this discussion - the premise of the exhibit is that manipulation should be acceptable because it has been practiced for over 100 years. I will see the exhibit because I am interested - I don't expect any help in answering the question when it's addressed to me.
I do have a few more thoughts on the question now. As photographers, I think we have to understand (and accept) why it is that people raise this question. As a medium, photography has a relationship to reality that other artistic mediums do not have. Also, most people's exposure to photography has been in the form of documentary images (yes, that could include celebrity magazines as well as news organizations). To be fair, it's not difficult to see why people would assume, even if incorrectly, that photography always represents something real, something that exists in the real world. They could reasonably expect to go to the same spot and see what is in your photograph. We know this isn't true but you can see how someone might think so.
The best. and clearest, analogy for me is to writers. No one would ever ask a novelist if they 'manipulated' words - they are expected to do precisely that. We know to expect that of a novelist - in fact, novelists will be asked what part of their story is based on actual events. And we don't have to go back far to see what happens to the journalist who makes up some or all of a story. The bottom line is that people make assumptions, not always accurate, and more than anything, they do not liked to be fooled. If we're clear about what we are doing, they may still not like it but we can't be accused of deceiving our audience.
Would you have seen the photograph above if you'd been standing on the beach next to me? Perhaps not but I hope you might say, oh I know that feeling.
I will add if you shoot black and white, you very rarely get the question - did you manipulate that? :)