‘Running didn’t even occur to me’: Gulnara Samoilova on photographing 9/11

io was asleep when the first plane hit. Al tempo, I lived just four blocks from the World Trade Center, right next to a hospital, a fire station and the HQ of the New York police. The sirens woke me up. They were nonstop. I turned on the television and saw one of the towers on fire. As I watched the second plane hit the south tower on TV, I also heard it because I lived so close.

I was working for Associated Press (AP) as a photo editor. I knew, as their closest staff member, that I should go out and document it. I got dressed, threw some film into my camera bag, and ran out to the World Trade Center. A lot of photography is like muscle memory. Even in a situation like this, your body knows exactly what to do. I remember a cop asking me: “How can you take photographs?” I told him: “I have to document this. It’s history.”

This was taken on Fulton Street between Church and Broadway. I remember looking at the south tower through my viewfinder and seeing it start to fall. I took one shot, then someone screamed: “RUN!” I ran, stumbled and fell, then ducked for cover behind the car you see on the left. The ground began to rumble, the car began to shake, then a massive cloud of thick dust blew through the streets. It was full of sharp, heavy sediment. Everything went silent. Then I started choking and couldn’t breathe. I had dust in my eyes, nose and mouth. I pulled up my T-shirt to cover my face. For a moment, I thought we’d been buried alive. Then I saw car lights blinking.

I began taking photographs of people walking on the street. The people in this shot passed me. We didn’t speak. I don’t know if anyone was speaking. We were all in shock. What a lot of people don’t think about when they see this image is how I was just like them, covered in dust, barely able to process the fact I almost died. I went on autopilot. I somehow changed the film and switched the lens but I don’t remember any of it. I was in shock. Running didn’t even occur to me. It took me a few minutes to actually move. But I think my camera saved my sanity. With it in front of my face, I was an observer, detached, watching this unfold. It helped me function and stay focused.

Someone handed me a bottle of water and a mask and that’s when I snapped out of the daze. I began to walk home, happy to be alive. I looked back and took some more shots of the north tower still burning. Dopo, I took a self-portrait in the bathroom, then mixed the chemicals and began to develop the film. I discovered I had two black and white rolls and one colour, which was strange as I wasn’t shooting in colour at that time. I have no idea how that roll got in my bag. Not that colour offered much advantage. After the collapse, you couldn’t even tell what race people were. We were all grey.

Just as I was about to develop the film, the north tower collapsed and lots of dust came into my apartment. A friend from AP called to check in on me. When I told her I’d been out taking photographs, she shouted to the office: “Gulnara was there!” Another editor yelled: “Get to the office ASAP!” Trains weren’t running so I walked about 40 blocks to the apartment of AP photo editor Madge Stager with the tank of two wet rolls of film in my hand. We dried it in front of a fan. I was still covered with dust. I didn’t even think to shower.

That day, I made a decision to focus on people, but it was painful and it did feel intrusive to photograph injured people. I saw people jumping. That was so terrifying I couldn’t lift my camera. I think this image shows just how dangerous and traumatic it was for people to even be near the towers.

I have a few health issues as a result of the exposure and I have been monitored by the WTC health department at Mount Sinai hospital. But this image has helped me to heal from the mental trauma I experienced. It made me realise that being there was not for nothing: 9/11 changed my life. It was the beginning of a journey to discover the meaning of my life and what I was here to do.

Born: Ufa, Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia, 1964.
Trained: Moscow polytechnic college; International Center of Photography (ICP), New York.
Influences: Mary Ellen Mark.
High point: “Publishing my first book, Women Street Photographers, with Prestel Publishing.”
Low point: “PTSD as a result of 9/11.”
Top tip: “Follow your passion, the rest will follow.”

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