Twenty years ago, Gulnara Samoilova was working as a staff photographer for the Associated Press. On September 11th, 2001 she had planned to be in Russia working on a personal project, but instead, she was photographing on the corner of Fulton and Church Streets. Through her viewfinder she saw the South Tower as it began to collapse and quickly made one photograph before running and hiding behind a car. Caught in the moment, choking and breathing dust, she was surrounded by chaos, ash, and debris. Without fully processing what had happened, Samoilova instinctively began photographing the people she saw walking in the street.

Her photograph of the survivors—seen here and featured in the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures—is her most well-known and iconic one. It has been published around the world and has won many prestigious awards, including from World Press Photo.

Samoilova has remarked that the camera saved her sanity during this moment in which she, full of shock, could not entirely understand that she too was one of the survivors completely covered in sediment and barely alive. Her own photographs have helped her heal from the trauma of 9/11 as they speak to the events and what some people experienced.

The images are powerful visual reminders of an indelible moment in our shared human experience. But as Samoilova writes, “No matter how many photographs or videos we see, no matter how many stories we hear, we will never know or understand the full scope of what happened that day — and how that day, for so many survivors, had much longer lasting implications.”

Recognizing how life-changing the catastrophic day was, Samoilova decided to make prints of her work shortly afterward. She also felt the immediate need to share the photographs widely, and ensure that they were preserved and made accessible to the public. She wanted people to learn from her images and understand the significance of the moment long after the fact. The photos are part of The New York Public Library's research collections. "This is it," she said, "Part of history."

In addition to Samoilova’s work documenting 9/11, the Library holds 2,500 photographs from the September 11 Photo Project archive, which was crowdsourced from anyone who wanted to participate. Originally an exhibition, it aimed to provide a way of grieving and “hoped to promote understanding of the tragedy on a human level.” Submissions came from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Moscow, and a prison in Oregon. The exhibition was shown at The New York Public Library and also traveled internationally.

This story is part of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library's research collections—we'll be publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures.

The Treasures exhibition opens Friday, September 24th, 2021 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now available here.