November 4, 2013 1:54 PM EST

Founded in 1955, World Press Photo is best known for its annual contest that, for more than half a century, has consistently set the bar for excellence in photojournalism and documentary photography. The announcement of the contest winners each April and the subsequent worldwide traveling exhibition highlight both new and established photographers for an international audience of millions.

But the annual contest, while the most prominent of World Press Photo’s initiatives, is only one aspect of the organization’s commitment to the support and appreciation of visual journalism.

The Joop Swart Masterclass — established in 1994 and named for a World Press Photo board member and passionate supporter of young photographers — holds a unique place within the educational programs run by the World Press Photo Academy.

To mark the 20th edition of the Masterclass, taking place this week, LightBox asked a representative photographer from each year of the program to contribute two images — one from their masterclass project and another from their wider body of work — along with a few words on what the masterclass meant to their life and career.

The full list of 260 participant photographers from the past two decades is a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary documentary photography. It also reflects World Press Photo’s global reach and its unwavering commitment to supporting non-Western photographers.

For the annual Masterclass, a committee of international experts nominates an initial list of 150 to 200 promising photographers. A panel of five industry professionals then narrows the submissions to the final selection of 12 participants for that year’s class.

The managing director of World Press Photo, Michiel Munneke says, “Quality, of course, is the most important criterion, but geographical diversity is also at the front of the judges’ minds. We believe that it enriches discussions and perspectives if you have people of different cultural backgrounds, as well as different professional backgrounds, [working] together.”

The selected participants are asked to prepare a photo essay over the following six months on a theme that is both specific, and universal.

However, Munneke points out, “there are no restrictions attached, no definitions given. The annual theme — for example ‘Faith’ in 2002, ‘Trust’ in 2012, ‘Hope’ in 2013 — is interpreted and executed differently by each photographer. We want to challenge the photographer to come up with a story that is compelling and convincing.”

The project also challenges photographers to find their own voice and take a different approach to their own work. “If you are a spot-news photographer,” Munneke says, “this is an opportunity to be more reflective and come up with something personal, to work in a different way.”

The photographers work independently until November, when they bring their projects to Amsterdam. There they attend an intensive 6-day workshop where they are mentored by six leading industry professional “Masters.”

Munneke says that the Masterclass originated “as a response to repeated requests from the photo community to bring together experienced photojournalists with young, promising individuals, to help the younger photographers progress in both theory and practice. That goal remains the same today, while the amount of individual attention given to each participant makes it a unique experience.”

For virtually everyone who participates, the class is more than career-changing; it’s life-changing.

“The masters feel they learn as much from the participants [as the participants do from them],” Munneke says. “These veterans get fresh ideas and are inspired by these young photographers.”

For instance, Stephen Mayes, the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust notes that “maybe the most surprising aspect of Tim’s participation in 2002 ‘Faith’ Masterclass was that he was present as a student, not as a master. He was already an assured image-maker then, with deep knowledge of multimedia and the wider applications for photography. It’s entirely characteristic of Tim that he would use any opportunity to meet people and learn from them, whether teachers or students.”

Many of the alumni subsequently become masters themselves and have their work recognized by World Press Photo awards — including Jodi Bieber, Erik Refner and Tim Hetherington each winning the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year.

In many ways, World Press Photo’s instrumental role in the evolution of photojournalism and documentary photography is most evident in its Masterclass: a nurturing environment that provides young and regional photographers with the time and the means to gain confidence and find their true voice.

Tragically, two Masterclass alumni, Tim Hetherington and Anton Hammerl, were killed covering the 2011 civil war in Libya. But their photographs — along with those of 258 fellow Masterclass participants — continue to provide an enduring and powerful legacy.

While this year’s Masterclass selection committee recognized, in the work of the nominees, signs of the ongoing shifts in photographic storytelling and aesthetics, it also acknowledged the continuing practice of more traditional photojournalism. Ultimately, in making its selections, the panel was most interested in “freshness and in finding photographers who will move into new ground through the Masterclass.”

2013 Masterclass recipients:

Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.

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