The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."James Nachtwey for TIME
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went into slow motion. Everything was floating. I thought I had all the time in the world to make the picture, and only at the last moment realized I was about to be taken out."
“Something unbelievable had just happened, and it was about to get much worse.”
“There was a sense of shock. The firefighters clicked into a kind of professional default and did what they knew how to do, in the face of impossible odds.”
“So many firefighters died that day. I think this picture recognizes their loss, and honors it. Their sacrifice was monumental. It will forever be remembered.”
“Conventional means of dealing with emergencies were completely overwhelmed. Even with their equipment destroyed the firefighters continued to work. It was much more than an exercise in futility. It was an act of bravery and nobility.”
“It looked like the set of a science fiction film about the apocalypse.”
“I’d been standing directly beneath the north tower when it collapsed. That I survived seems almost miraculous. I was inside that massive cloud of smoke and dust, suffocating and blinded. I kept moving and eventually saw light emanating in the distance.”
“Thousands of people had died, but they weren’t visible. The horrible fact sank in that everyone who’d been inside was buried beneath thousands of tons of steel and concrete. An unspoken understanding hung in the air – it was already too late.”
“The unbelievable had happened, and any effort seemed futile compared the magnitude of the event. I’m not sure there was even a place to attach their fire hoses.”
“The firemen could only put one foot in front of the other and try not to give in to despair.”
“That a car had been turned upside down looked bizarre, but more important was the look on the fireman’s face. His eyes were rimmed in black, and he had a thousand-yard stare.”
“Firefighters do a job that sometimes requires them to put their lives on the line. That day their courage and commitment were severely tested, and they paid an enormous price.”
“Tons of paper had flown through the air when the towers collapsed. Some of it had been blown through the broken windows of nearby buildings.”
“A group of firemen had raised a flag in the midst of the ruins. It was an expression of defiance, of being unbowed, a tribute to their fallen comrades.”
“Through the years my work has been fueled by anger at injustices and atrocities, but always in another country. Now it had happened in my own country, my own city, my own backyard, and the sense of anger had an edge that was even more personal.”
“Even as the sun was going down, firemen continued to fan out through the vast wreckage. By then, I’m sure they realized there was a slim chance of finding anyone still alive, but if they could find only one, they’d give it everything they had.”
The following photographs were all made on 9/11 and are described here in Nachtwey's own words: "In my mind it all went

James Nachtwey for TIME
1 of 16

Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey

Updated: Sep 08, 2017 3:30 PM ET | Originally published: Sep 07, 2011

James Nachtwey happened to be in New York the morning of 9/11 and made his way to Ground Zero. In 2001, TIME published Nachtwey's extraordinary pictures from the day, but he did not revisit those 27 rolls of film for years. In 2011, we had Nachtwey in the office, poring over his contact sheets, reliving the events of that Tuesday. Here, he shares his edit of those photographs, some previously unpublished (slides: 1, 5, 8, 9, 11, 14, 16), with TIME and spoke with writer David Levi Strauss about the work.

James Nachtwey awoke early on September 11, 2001, having flown in from France late the night before. It was unusual for him to be in the city at that time, when he would normally be on assignment elsewhere in the world, documenting conflicts. He took his morning coffee to the east side of his Water Street loft, and looked out across the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge. He remembers that the sky was the bluest and clearest he’d seen in a long time, a condition pilots call “severe clear.” The bridge was lit from behind, with the sun glinting off the surface of the water. Nachtwey glanced down, and noticed some people standing on an adjacent roof, looking west and pointing toward the sky. He crossed the room to the windows on the other side of the loft and saw the north tower of the World Trade Center in flames. A few minutes later, the second plane hit the south tower. Nachtwey, the greatest war photographer of our time, knew instantly that this was an act of war. He packed up his cameras, loaded all the film he had, and ran toward the burning towers.

(Related: 9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most )

As he had done so many times before, he was running toward something that everyone else, except for the other first-responders, was running away from. He was going to do his job: to get to the spot and document what was happening. But this time it was different. This time it was happening in his own backyard. “I’ve always gone away, and been involved in other people’s tragedies and dangerous situations, and coming back to America was always a refuge. But now the war had reached us, and I think we became part of the world at that point in a way that we hadn’t been before. Maybe it was a long time in coming, but it’s happened now, and nothing will ever be the same.”

The photographs that Nachtwey took that day, over the next twelve hours, are some of the most iconic images of 9/11: the south tower collapsing behind the cross atop the Church of Saint Peter on Church Street and Barclay; ghostly figures coated in white dust emerging from the smoke; three firemen working around their leader, on his knees, bareheaded, looking back to see the flames sweeping toward them; and the twisted, otherworldly ruins of 1 World Trade Center, looking like the “set of a silent film of the apocalypse.”

At 10:29 a.m., Nachtwey heard “what sounded like a waterfall in the sky,” and looked up to see the north tower coming right down on top of him. “I understood instantly that I had about five seconds to live, and that my chances of surviving this were very slim. It was actually a very beautiful sight, with the smoke and the metal and the paper against the blue sky. It was visually stunning, one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. But it was going to kill me, and there was no time to take a picture.” He quickly scanned the area, spied the open door of a hotel across the street (the Millennium Hotel) and lunged toward it. Inside, he dove into an open elevator just as everything went black. “You couldn’t see a thing. I might have been dead, except that I was suffocating, so I knew I must be alive.” He called out to see if there was anyone injured around him who needed help, and then began inching forward in the darkness. After awhile, he saw pinpoints of light that turned out to be the blinking lights of abandoned police vehicles. “Then I knew I was outside, and I realized, well, I must not be buried under the wreckage if I’m outside.” He instinctively headed north and eventually came out into the light. Then he turned around and went back to Ground Zero.

“It was, well, what can I say? It was beyond belief. Everything was covered in that white dust, with giant pieces of metal lying around, and the buildings crushed beneath it. There wasn’t much the firemen could do, but they were still trying, searching and calling out for people. I mean it was just solid wreckage. It was so unbelievable that I guess you just had to rely on what you normally do, and just keep doing your job. And the firemen and police were there, they were doing their job, they were professional. I think they understood they’d lost a lot of their comrades, but they were holding that in pretty good. For myself, I remember trying to be a photographer and how important that seemed. It was the only thing I could do. It was my simple task.”

One of the things that made 9/11 different from many of the battlefields where Nachtwey has worked for the past 30 years was that he wasn’t seeing the bodies of the dead. “The absence of bodies put your heart in your throat, understanding how great the loss must be. There was no one to rescue, no one to treat. They were all underneath the wreckage, and they were all dead.”

Nachtwey spent the rest of the day at Ground Zero, doing his job. He had brought 28 rolls of film, and gave one precious roll away to a fellow photographer. Ten years ago, Nachtwey had not yet switched over to digital, so there are 27 contact sheets from September 11th. Fourteen of Nachtwey’s images that were posted on had 2 million page views on that first day.

Roll #6, exposure #1 showing an image of first responders carrying the body of Fr. Mychal Judge on 9/11. James Nachtwey for TIME 

On August 21, 2011, Nachtwey looked at his contact sheets from 9/11 for the first time in ten years, and it unleashed a torrent of memories. “I was surprised at how raw I still felt about that day. I realized I’d buried it and wanted to keep it buried. There must be plenty of reasons why, but they’re mostly unarticulated, and maybe they always will be. The sheer magnitude of it, the unreality, the horror, the futility, the insane, evil brilliance of the attack and the plain fact that it succeeded, the ways in which it changed the world, an overwhelming, unbearable sense of loss, because photography is a form of memory, a physical manifestation of it, and some memories want to be locked away, and I was unlocking them.”

Like all of the documentary photographers I know, Jim Nachtwey has an unshakeable belief in the power of images, and that there is a real social value in people being able to see what happened. “What sustains me is the overall value in communicating. People need to know and they need to understand in a human way. Photography is a language, with its own limitations and strengths, but these are my tools, so I have to try and use them well. I want my pictures to be powerful and eloquent. I want to reach people on a deep level. Because I’m presenting my images to a mass audience, I have to have faith that people care about things. People are innately generous, and if they have a channel for their generosity, they’ll respond. People know when something unacceptable is going on, and they want to see it change. I think that’s the basis of communication. Mass awareness is one element of change, but it has to be combined with political will.”

“In the case of 9/11, the fact that it was wrong and that it was an atrocity was obvious—it didn’t take me to prove it. All I could do was document it to the best of my ability. I think a lot of times, my pictures can actually change people’s minds, and push the process that needs to happen in a certain direction. But in this case it was going to happen with or without me. Unfortunately, the Bush administration used the emotional power of the images of 9/11, including mine, to justify and gather support for an ill-conceived invasion of Iraq, a country that had absolutely no connection to the attack on 9/11. So things get manipulated in all kinds of ways. But I really did feel the personal anger about 9/11. This was an attack on my country, my city, my neighborhood.”

Interview by David Levi Strauss

Twin Towers, 1971. James Nachtwey 

While revisiting his archive, Nachtwey came across a photograph he made in 1971, when he was teaching himself photography, that eerily foreshadows the photos he made on 9/11.

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

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.