Photographers are our modern day scribes. They are unheralded historians, capturing the mood, the action, the zeitgeist of every era.
The power of the camera — its ability to move nations and transform widely-held perceptions — has been democratized, spreading to everyone from students protesting in the streets of Turkey, smartphone in hand, to the children of Calcutta’s brothels snapping on simple point-and-shoots.
In a globalized era when distance is measured in the milliseconds it takes to upload a file to the web, we are all authors of the visual story of the 21st Century, and news organizations — fellow scribes of the times — are adjusting accordingly. When anyone with a phone can capture a pivotal moment in history, the relationship between news organizations and top-notch regional photographers is more important than ever.
In looking through TIME’s Top 10 Photos of the Year, two of the most memorable shots of 2013 were created by first-rate regional photographers. Taslima Akhter’s “Final Embrace,” gives a harrowing sense of what was lost by the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh — I carried that image in my head for days. Mosa’ab Elshamy’s photos of the Rabaa Massacre in Cairo also haunt the viewer with their raw depictions of grief and anger, shedding light on the emotional milieu of post-revolutionary Egypt.
The rise of regional photographers started decades ago, but has been buttressed and accelerated by recent advances in technology. The process for obtaining photographs from around the world used to be fairly complicated, requiring news organizations to Western photographers and reporters into the region, where they would then develop their film and use printmaking and machinery to transmit images over wires. Now, digital cameras, relatively cheap software, and digital file transfers over the internet make the trade between established news institutions in the West and local or regional photographers more viable.
While the internet has allowed Western news companies to access cheaper, regional talent, the channel goes both ways. The internet has leveled the playing field, enabling local photographers to see the work of great contemporary photographers and learn from them. Several news organizations provide training and mentorship programs for budding photographers throughout the world, knowing that cultivating these artists is in the organization’s best interest.
The use of regional photographers is widespread not only because it saves money and increases speed and efficiency for news organizations with shrinking budgets, but also because they can uncover a different truth or perspective on the news event taking place. A local or regional photographer can arguably blend in and find a story that an outsider might not be able to score.
This exclusive access and cultural camouflage is a double-edged sword; the layer of security is thin. While the local or regional photographer can blend in, she doesn’t leave the scene after her shots are sent out. Home can be a dangerous place for a photographer documenting tumultuous times, and the photographer’s connection to her subject can be problematic and raise ethical questions for news organizations purchasing her photos.
“There are times when insiders have a privileged view and there are times when outsiders can see what insiders cannot perceive,” says Susan Meislas, the Director of the Magnum Foundation, which uses its Emergency Funds for regional photographers documenting crises, “It’s not always a simple matrix.”
Whatever the balance of dispassionate or even-handed outsiders and enmeshed insiders with a more subjective tone, regional photographers will certainly continue to be a part of our chronicled times, searing the most significant moments of our history into our collective memory.