January 8, 2014 4:00 AM EST

Many images published around the world on a daily basis are not taken by news organizations or commissioned by magazines, but are instead provided by third-party vendors who are, for various reasons, closer to the source of the story.

Whether viewed as a public service or as propaganda, widely-disseminated handout images provide visual material the public would otherwise rarely see. They can also, at times, constitute a minefield for the sources and publishers working with the material.

Handouts are often provided to news organizations and media companies — by governments, event organizers, private companies — in instances where access for photographers is either denied or not possible.

These images can be used for public good. Surveillance images released by law enforcement agencies function like modern-day digital wanted posters. Other images function as tributes to those who have died, celebrating their lives and achievements. Still others nostalgically commemorate significant events of the past, or highlight the wonders of science and the natural world, or raise awareness on an under-reported issue.

Some of the most popular and widely-shared images each and every year are released through handout channels: White House photos of the president, L’Osservatore Romano images of the Pope and, often from NASA, those related to space.

Not all handout images are, in fact, simply handed out. Occasionally, there’s some detective work involved in finding them. In the instance of a crime, depending on the jurisdiction in which is was committed, there may or may not be a precedent of releasing evidence photos as public record. Photo editors occasionally need to file a Freedom of Information request for images. Sometimes these requests bare fruit; sometimes not.

While the basic policy of news agencies and publishers alike is to not use a handout image if they have access to or can make their own photographs, sometimes economics, deadlines and even quality determine otherwise.

For the news agencies, issues of security and safety can lead to a reliance on handout images from places like Syria, for example, because of the size of the country and the very real dangers of covering such a chaotic and volatile civil war. The question then becomes one of who made the pictures, and is the imagery “real,” i.e., untampered with by someone trying to push a particular agenda through.

“In democratic countries where there is a traditional belief that an independent view is important, we should always strive for independent media access,” says AP’s Director of Photography Santiago Lyon. “Conversely, we often accept handouts from governments or states where the media freedoms are not as developed as they are in most democracies.”

“Official photographs from Cuba or from North Korea offer us, I think, a rare glimpse into essentially closed governments,” he adds. “Our view is that by not using those handout images, we would deprive our readers and viewers of a unique source of information.”

Publicity machines, PR organizations, educational institutions and activist organizations like Greenpeace are also players in the handout business.

News organizations — AP, Reuters, Getty — who carefully vet these images to determine authenticity and the motives of those supplying them distribute these photos and, in a sense, validate them. Handouts distributed via the news agencies do bear a warning for those who receive them: namely, that the image was provided by a third party. However, sometimes this level of transparency and accuracy is not embraced by the media organizations who receive and disseminate the material to the public.

Here, TIME presents a diverse selection of handout images from the last 12 months. Often fascinating, this abundant array of material runs the gamut from entertaining to educational, compelling to controversial.

Phil Bicker is a senior photo editor at TIME.

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