9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most

James Nachtwey for TIME
James Nachtwey for TIME
MaryAnne Golon, photo editor and media consultant; former Director of Photography of TIME

"James Nachtwey’s photograph here of one tiny New York City fireman making his way through the inferno that was once the World Trade Center towers is forever seared into my memory from the darkest day in American history, 9/11/2001. Later on that evening, Jim, completely covered in ash from the fallen World Trade Center towers, arrived in person at the Time and Life building in midtown Manhattan to deliver his exposed film to his waiting editors. While his film was being processed, he drank a large bottle of water, and slumped exhausted in a dark green chair in the Time photo department hallway. The following morning, the imprint of his body on the chair and his dusty footprints were still there. Then editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine and his deputy, John Huey, came by to see where the great photographer had walked.  James Kelly, the finest news magazine editor in America, chose to run many of Jim’s pictures in the 9/11 black-bordered issue of TIME Magazine that memorialized that tragic event. I was honored to have been the picture editor of that edition and to be the first person in the world to have seen Jim’s haunting work. It took months for me to grieve as a human being. I was working 80-hour weeks to do my job as a journalist. Jim’s work comforted me and helped many Americans to process the hideous aftermath of those horrendous days. Thank you, Jim Nachtwey."

On September 11, 2001, photography editors across the world, overcome with a deluge of devastating imagery, faced the daunting task of selecting photos that would go on to define a catastrophe like no other. A decade later, TIME asked a wide variety of the industry’s leading photo editors, photographers, authors, educators, and bloggers to tell us which image moved them most—and why.

(Related: The Mohawk Ironworkers Rebuilding The New York Skyline)

Some couldn’t choose one single image. Vin Alabiso, head of photography at the Associated Press on September 11, 2001, said, “Of the thousands of images that were captured, I thought only a handful would truly resonate with me. I was wrong. As a document of a day filled with horror and heroism, the collective work of so many professionals and amateurs leaves its own indelible mark on our memory.”

Holly Hughes, editor of Photo District News, said she was moved most by the photographs of the missing people that blanketed the city in the days after 9/11. “The images that can still move me to tears are the snapshots of happy, smiling people looking out from the homemade missing posters that were taped to signposts and doorways and mailboxes,” she said. “How those posters were made, the state of mind of the people who stood at Xerox machines to make copies, it’s too painful to contemplate. Those flyers stayed up around the city for weeks, through wind and rain, and became entwined with the sorrow and anxiety we carried with us day after day.”

(Related: Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey)

Alabiso added, “A decade later, I could only wish that the most memorable photo of September 11, 2001, would not have been memorable at all…simply two towers silhouetted against a clear azure-blue sky.”

To visit TIME’s Beyond 9/11: A Portrait of Resilience, a project that chronicles 9/11 and its aftermath, click here.

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