A lot has changed in the decade since Dr. Scott Lieberman captured an iconic shot of Space Shuttle Columbia breaking apart on Feb. 1, 2003. The 6-megapixel digital camera he used to capture the shot was a curiosity then â€” heâ€™d had to order it from a Canadian distributor because he couldnâ€™t find one in the U.S. To get the photo out to the world, he had to drive the file to the office of his local newspaper. And since then, of course, the United States stopped flying space shuttles.
Lieberman has picked up a sideline to his interventional cardiology practice in the decade since the disaster. Heâ€™s an independent contract contributor to the Associated Press now, with hundreds of photos carrying his credit.
Liebermanâ€™s photo appeared on the front page of virtually every U.S. paper, including this one, which is republished courtesy of the Newseum
â€œGetting published was a fantastic, visceral event,â€ he says on the phone from Tyler, Texas, where he still lives.
After his Columbia shot ended up on the front pages of more than 100 newspapers and the covers of Time and Paris Match, Lieberman says he studied â€œhundreds of thousands of imagesâ€ and befriended AP photographers he could learn from. He attended shuttle launches and landings â€” in fact, he scored with another shuttle shot in 2006 when Shuttle Discovery was heading back to Florida after a stopover at Barksdale Air Force Base. He attended with many other photographers.
â€œAlmost everybody leftâ€ after the shuttle took off and headed north, Lieberman remembers. â€œLast time I looked, Florida was south and east of us.â€ So he trained his tripod on the early sky and captured a shot of the shuttle silhouetted against the red morning light. â€œThat was not a dumb luck picture,â€ he says.
Lieberman says he has â€œa little bit of a scientistâ€™s, observerâ€™s nature, and I think thatâ€™s what I bring into the photos.â€ Also, he says, he can afford nice equipment. Heâ€™d purchased the 6-megapixel Canon EOS-D60 he used for the original Columbia picture as a way to get back into photography before a trip to Alaska. â€œYou probably did have to be a doctor or a lawyer to have one of those things,â€ he says, laughing. He says he gets a lot of use out of his 400mm f2.8 lens, a very expensive piece of glass. â€œIâ€™ve always said what I lack in skill I can compensate for in better equipment,â€ he says.
When Liebermanâ€™s Columbia image ran on the cover of Time, the photojournalism establishment still regarded digital photography with a slightly wary eye. Vin Alabiso was head of photography for AP when Poynterâ€™s Kenny Irby interviewed him about Liebermanâ€™s photo; he predicted at the time the image, which the wire service disseminated hours after the event, would wear down some of that resistance. â€œThere is no question that this photo will be one famous photograph of the year,â€ Alabiso told Irby. â€œAdditionally, given the technology of the day and our instant delivery abilities, pictures can now move further, faster than ever before. Tyler helped us make this happen.â€
â€œSuddenly there was an appreciation that, yes, you could carry a digital camera,â€ Lieberman says. â€œThe wariness that existed was rooted more in the speed than in image quality,â€ Poynterâ€™s Kenny Irby says. â€œThe media industry would just as soon settle for a lower resolution frame grab given the lack of a quality still photograph.â€ Irby says Liebermanâ€™s photograph did â€œcontribute to the strong validation in the potential and power of digital photography for real time news coverage.â€
And of course, Liebermanâ€™s photo came at the dawn of a golden age for citizen journalists â€” from George Hollidayâ€™s Rodney King video to Janis Krumâ€™s photo of the â€œMiracle on the Hudson.â€ Itâ€™s no longer surprising when someone not employed as a photographer takes a shot that amazes the world. (Sadly, itâ€™s also a time in which itâ€™s no longer surprising to hear about photographers who are no longer employed.)
â€œThere is no doubt that Dr. Lieberman captured a historic moment in U.S. space flight history,â€ Irby says. â€œIt certainly contributed to the expansion of citizen journalism in the photographic reporting arena. And it is particularly unique that someone of his professional accomplishment would continue to consistently contribute to practice photojournalism professionally. His contributing work with Associated Press has been commendable.â€
Lieberman takes photos of celebrities who come through Tyler, and he sometimes self-assigns news events where he knows pros will be so he can try to get an unusual shot. And he still trains his lens on the sky with some frequency â€” lightning is a specialty. In fact, one of his shots of lightning in the Texas sky ran in USA Today this week.
I had to ask: Does Liebermanâ€™s medical training ever come in handy when heâ€™s moonlighting? Under the constraints of the Hippocratic Oath, he couldnâ€™t give me specifics, he says, but heâ€™s helped fellow photographers in the field â€” one at a shuttle launch â€” and also given many of them medical advice on the phone or via his Facebook page. â€œIâ€™ve felt more than obligated to help them when I can,â€ he says. â€œIâ€™ve learned a lot through exposure to these people.â€
Once at the Tyler newspaper offices, he says, an editor complained of some symptoms and Lieberman suggested he get a stress test. The guy ended up having surgery. â€œI wouldnâ€™t jump up and down and say it saved his life, but it certainly could have,â€ he says. Heâ€™s made lasting friendships with people he hasnâ€™t sent to a gurney, too. â€œAs awful as the original picture was, the disaster it represented, some good has come out of it,â€ he says.