Photographs by non-Western photographers are featured prominently among the best documentary images of 2013. Taslima Akhter’s haunting “Final Embrace,” taken in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, as well as a powerful Mosa’ab Elshamy photo from the violent Rabaa Square protests in Cairo both made TIME’s Top 10 Photos of the Year. Meanwhile, EPA photojournalist Ali Ali’s consistently strong images of daily life from the Gaza Strip earned him the distinction of being the most represented photographer in TIME’s 365 gallery.
Although it has become more prevalent in recent years, the practice of regional photographers working for Western news organizations dates back decades. Here, TIME showcases work made over the past year by the aforementioned three, examining the wider context, evolution and issues that relate to regional photography.
“Once upon a time, there was a tendency to send Western photographers to cover breaking stories around the world,” Santiago Lyon, AP’s Director of Photography, tells TIME. “There was a view that foreign photographers spoke the language of photography in a way that was understood by the viewers and readers in the countries where the images were being published.”
For many magazines, there was a certain cachet in having a French or American photographer tell a story.
“That said, there’s a long tradition of working with local photographers,” Lyon says. “When you look at what the AP did in Vietnam, it had a network of local stringers, some of whom, including Nick Ut, went on to make photographs that have remained in the collective memory.”
Over the past four decades, shifts in technology have made working with regional photographers more viable. Before the advent of the Internet, getting a picture for a story was a complicated exercise involving film development, print-making and machinery designed to transmit images over the wires. Today, cameras are more advanced, with more automatic functions and digital-file transfer processes that make it easier to capture properly exposed, in-focus images and distribute them from the far corners of the world.
The digital revolution has also “leveled the playing field,” Lyon says, “in that the spread of visual information meant that photographers all over could more easily see the work of great historical or contemporary photographers.”
Regional threats to journalists’ security, meanwhile, have also intensified. Photography is more readily viewed by interested parties who in turn attempt to control the flow of information through harassment and intimidation. While issues of safety affect all journalists, the local journalist has to remain in place, and many attacks in recent years have been on regional contributors.
With local photographers better equipped to provide quality imagery — and, in a sense, better able to blend in with their surroundings — increasingly budget-conscious news organizations employ them more and more often.
Working with local photographers not only saves money in the short-term, but can also provide significant long-term payoffs. News agencies and photography organizations like World Press Photo, for example, often train and mentor regional photographers, providing a bridge between established news outlets and fledgling practitioners of the craft.
“What larger organizations offer to local photographers is more than a financial transaction, but a dialog that improves their ability to communicate and tell stories effectively,” Lyon says. “In Iraq [where five AP-trained regional photographers were part of the agency’s 2005 Pulitzer-winning team] and more recently in Egypt, what attracted these photographers was that they were telling the story of their country in a powerful way.”
Having a deeper connection to what one covers can also, however, be problematic.
“If a member of the Muslim Brotherhood is giving us photographs,” Lyon says, “that would be problematic. If there is any doubt as to the provenance of an image or the circumstances under which it was taken, it can undermine our journalistic cause.”
Susan Meiselas, Director of the Magnum Foundation, finds the work produced by photographers at or near their own home indispensable. Each year, a third of the foundation’s Emergency Fund goes to regional photographers.
“I want to know from within what the world looks like and feels like,” Meiselas says.
For a 1990 book she edited, Chile from within, for instance, Meisalas chose to compile the work of local Chilean photographers who bore witness to the turbulence and the military coup that convulsed their own country in the 1980s, instead of including her own photography.
“There are times when insiders have a privileged view and there are times when outsiders can see what insiders cannot perceive” says Meiselas. “It’s not always a simple matrix.”
Meiselas cites Taslima Akhter, a Magnum Foundation Fellow whose photograph from Rana Plaza affected us so deeply in 2013, as a case in point.
“Taslima was special,” she says, “because of that very specific moment that she recognized [and photographed] and her deep connection to the conditions that led to that moment [the Tazreen factory fire in November 2012 and the Rana Plaza building collapse in April 2013]. She was already documenting there before the catastrophe, [before they were on international radar,] and she continues, as an activist and photographer, to document them in the aftermath and maintain that awareness.”
Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.