Texas doctor who captured iconic image of Columbia disaster is now a working photographer

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 — he’d had to order it from a Canadian distributor because he couldn’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. He’s an independent contract contributor to the Associated Press now, with hundreds of photos carrying his credit.

Lieberman’s photo appeared on the front page of virtually every U.S. paper, including this one, which is republished courtesy of the Newseum

“Getting published was a fantastic, visceral event,” 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 “hundreds of thousands of images” and befriended AP photographers he could learn from. He attended shuttle launches and landings — 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.

“Almost everybody left” after the shuttle took off and headed north, Lieberman remembers. “Last time I looked, Florida was south and east of us.” So he trained his tripod on the early sky and captured a shot of the shuttle silhouetted against the red morning light. “That was not a dumb luck picture,” he says.

Lieberman says he has “a little bit of a scientist’s, observer’s nature, and I think that’s what I bring into the photos.” Also, he says, he can afford nice equipment. He’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. “You probably did have to be a doctor or a lawyer to have one of those things,” he says, laughing. He says he gets a lot of use out of his 400mm f2.8 lens, a very expensive piece of glass. “I’ve always said what I lack in skill I can compensate for in better equipment,” he says.

This 2007 photo shows a helicopter searching for a missing person in Texas. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

When Lieberman’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 Poynter’s Kenny Irby interviewed him about Lieberman’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. “There is no question that this photo will be one famous photograph of the year,” Alabiso told Irby. “Additionally, 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.”

“Suddenly there was an appreciation that, yes, you could carry a digital camera,” Lieberman says. “The wariness that existed was rooted more in the speed than in image quality,” Poynter’s Kenny Irby says. “The media industry would just as soon settle for a lower resolution frame grab given the lack of a quality still photograph.” Irby says Lieberman’s photograph did “contribute to the strong validation in the potential and power of digital photography for real time news coverage.”

And of course, Lieberman’s photo came at the dawn of a golden age for citizen journalists — from George Holliday’s Rodney King video to Janis Krum’s photo of the “Miracle on the Hudson.” It’s no longer surprising when someone not employed as a photographer takes a shot that amazes the world. (Sadly, it’s also a time in which it’s no longer surprising to hear about photographers who are no longer employed.)

“There is no doubt that Dr. Lieberman captured a historic moment in U.S. space flight history,” Irby says. “It 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.”

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 — lightning is a specialty. In fact, one of his shots of lightning in the Texas sky ran in USA Today this week.

A 2011 photo of lightning over the Heritage Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

I had to ask: Does Lieberman’s medical training ever come in handy when he’s moonlighting? Under the constraints of the Hippocratic Oath, he couldn’t give me specifics, he says, but he’s helped fellow photographers in the field — one at a shuttle launch — and also given many of them medical advice on the phone or via his Facebook page. “I’ve felt more than obligated to help them when I can,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot through exposure to these people.”

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. “I wouldn’t jump up and down and say it saved his life, but it certainly could have,” he says. He’s made lasting friendships with people he hasn’t sent to a gurney, too. “As awful as the original picture was, the disaster it represented, some good has come out of it,” he says.

Space Shuttle Atlantis lifting off in September 2006. Atlantis was the last shuttle to fly; the program ended in 2011. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

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  • Kenny Chaffin

    Nope, it’s got to be set to F8!

  • Cy Leow

    I was the Picture Editor of The Star in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1997
    when we bought 2 units of Kodak DCS520 and me and another colleague shot
    the 1998 Commonwealth Games in digital and files were sent from the
    stadium back to our office via Nokia mobile phones.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Joe-ThePimpernel/100003157676276 Joe ThePimpernel

    You’re one of those people who think the more you spend for something, the better you are, aren’t you?

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.m.lieberman Scott M. Lieberman

    Just being there, no. But knowing what is happening and getting the image does.

  • http://www.facebook.com/scott.m.lieberman Scott M. Lieberman

    The point I was making, and was also made by Irby at Poynter is that prior to that photo there was more then some hesitancy to only shoot digital. Yes, many newspapers had gone mostly digital, but most were <4mp cameras. Most of the glossies was not using them yet do to the low resolution. This was a 6.3mp image, one of the first available at the time, and the image one of the first used for a glossy cover such as TIME and USNWR. Its not that the image itself changed anything, but that it is a touchstone or benchmark for the rise of resolution and signaled the end of film for most publication purposes. When this image was taken Nat. Geo was almost all film. By the end of 2003 Nat. Geo had gone all digital.

  • http://thietbivesinhvn.com.vn/ Hoangmaicorp

    Technology has evolved to the difficult question, the digital photo has a great contribute to the image that we see today….

  • v_vsn

    I know, it’s strange – I knew professional AP photographers in San Francisco in 2000 who were sending their images over the Internet and digitally …

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.kantor John Kantor

    Just be there – crappy Canon digital camera and all – and you’re instantly a photographer.

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  • http://www.oshaughnessy.org/ Bob O’Shaughnessy

    It seems odd to cast this photo as breaking any ground in digital photojournalism, or to imply that digital work was in any way out of the ordinary in 2003. Digital started making its way into the deadline-driven newspaper world in the mid 90′s (see http://nickdidlick.com/aboutme/ for examples). If memory serves, by 2003 it was far more likely that a photo in publication was taken with a digital camera than with film.

  • http://www.facebook.com/thejayjones Jay Jones

    The phrase “he scored” is probably not appropriate given the tragic nature of his most famous photo.

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Sure, it was Feb. 1, 2003 (10 years ago today). We added it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stretch-Ledford/100000207548944 Stretch Ledford

    Shouldn’t the date of the Columbia photo be somewhere in the lead? Or somewhere in the story?