April 24, 2013, still remains fresh in my memory. At 9 AM when I got the news, I rushed to Rana Plaza. That morning I did not understand what a brutal thing had happened, but within hours I grasped the enormity and horror of it. The day passed with many people helping survivors and taking photos. At midnight there were still many people. I saw the frightened eyes of the relatives. Some were crying. Some were looking for their loved ones.
Around 2 AM among the many dead bodies inside the collapse, I found a couple at the back of the building, embracing each other in the rubble. The lower parts of their bodies were stuck under the concrete. A drop of blood from the man’s eye ran like a tear. Since then, this couple remains firmly in my heart. So many questions rose in my mind. What were they thinking at the last moment of their lives? Did they remember their family members? Did they to try to save themselves?
I keep asking myself whether the dreams of these people do not matter at all. Are they not worthy of our attention because they are the cheapest labor in the world? I have received many letters from different corners of the world, expressing solidarity with the workers. Those letters inspired me so much, while this incident raised questions about my responsibility as a photographer. My photography is my protest.
More than ever, photography has become the predominant means for us to communicate. An absolutely astounding number of pictures are shared every single day — half a billion, and rising. And yet somehow, even amid this colossal torrent of imagery, the best pictures rise to the top.
Our top ten photographs of 2013 celebrate a variety of images from a multitude of photographers, including seasoned photojournalists Tyler Hicks (the Westgate Mall Massacre in Nairobi), Philippe Lopez, (Super Typhoon Haiyan’s destructive wrath upon the Philippines), and John Tlumacki, for his extraordinary coverage of the terror bombing at the Boston Marathon.
The news has introduced to us several emerging photographers this year, including Mosa’ab Elshamy who documented the bloody demonstrations in Cairo’s Rabaa Square, and Daniel Etter, who made an iconic photograph during the Turkish uprising. In late April, activist and photographer Taslima Akhter made the single most haunting photograph of the fire that killed more than 1000 in a Bangladeshi garment factory: a final embrace. Although she has spent months trying to learn the names of the victims shown in that unsettling, moving picture, Akhter has been unable to identify them.
In September, TIME published a set of images recording a brutal execution in Syria; at the time, we withheld the photographer’s name for security reasons. Now, he has decided to come forward for the first time. He is Emin Özmen, a Turkish photographer awarded a World Press Photo prize in 2012 for his images of torture in Aleppo. The execution pictures he made over the course of one day in the midst of the Syrian cataclysm bear witness to that war’s unspeakable, and ongoing, atrocities.
Photographer Peter van Agtmael has spent many years documenting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their aftermath. In June, he made a touching portrait of an Iraqi war veteran-turned stand-up comedian, Bobby Henline, as part of a photo essay and documentary film for TIME.
David Jenkins captures an astounding photograph of a great white shark near Seal Island, South Africa whose prey, the great fur seal, looks to have gotten away. You’ll have to read his account to find out.
Early in the year, Tim Holmes, his wife and five grandchildren took refuge in the sea bordering their property when a wild brush fire swept through their Australian coastal town. Holmes took a harrowing picture with his mobile phone to send to his daughter as proof that they were all okay. While Holmes is not a news photographer, his picture is testament to the power of the mobile phone and the fact that some of the most newsworthy and emotional pictures can be made by normal citizens in the midst of a breaking story.
We spoke to each of the 10 photographers about the image that he or she shot; their words provide the captions accompanying the photos in the gallery above.
In the next few weeks, TIME.com will roll out our year-end photo specials. For the third year in a row, we’ll present our annual “365: Year in Pictures” gallery — a comprehensive look at the strongest picture from each and every day of 2013; the Most Surprising Pictures of the Year; TIME’s best photojournalism and portraiture from 2013 and TIME’s choice for the Wire Photographer of the Year. TIME’s Senior Photo Editor, Phil Bicker, is curating many of these galleries with help from the photo team at TIME. Bicker’s discerning and nuanced eye is responsible for the curation of TIME’s Pictures of the Week — galleries that present surprising and occasionally offbeat photographs from around the globe. We hope you will enjoy the selections and keep watching for updates through the end of 2013. Think we missed something? Tell us your favorite photo of 2013 using #TIME2013.
Finally, I’m especially proud to announce that our upcoming Dec. 23rd issue of TIME will be dedicated fully to the art and power of the photograph in 2013. Stay tuned…
Kira Pollack is TIME’s Director of Photography. Follow her on Twitter @kirapollack.