By Laura Barlament

It sounded like a heart murmur.

That’s how Dr. Scott Lieberman ’83 knew “something was amiss.”

But the cardiologist was not listening to a patient’s heartbeat. Instead, he was listening for the sonic boom caused by the re-entry of the space shuttle Columbia into the Earth’s atmosphere, as it passed above his home in Tyler, Texas, on February 1, 2003.

Lieberman had been outside, photographing the event. He was a serious hobbyist photographer, with a longtime interest in aerospace as well. Some years earlier, he had watched the re-entry of another space shuttle and admired its emerald green contrail. Ever since then, he had been looking for an opportunity to get pictures of such an event. “I assumed it would be a mantelpiece photo for me,” he says.

As he was shooting his photos, using his top-of-the-line 6-megapixel Canon DSLR camera, it didn’t look quite like what he expected. His wife, Robyn Jacobs Lieberman ’85, was filming it with a video camera, and she said it seemed like the shuttle was breaking up. Still, Lieberman never imagined he could be witnessing, and capturing in digital images, a tremendous disaster and worldwide news event.

The abnormal sound let him know something was truly wrong. “It was a rumble that got louder and then faded away, like a freight train approaching and leaving. It was loud and long, not ‘thud thud’ like the typical sonic boom.”

Indeed, the Columbia was disintegrating. As soon as Lieberman downloaded his eight shots and enlarged them on his computer, he could see the fragmentation of the spacecraft.

Dr. Lieberman in scrubs looks at the newspapers and magazines displayed on the wall.
Dr. Scott Lieberman, a cardiologist in Tyler, Texas, views a display of magazines and newspapers that used his photograph of the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Photo courtesy of Dr. Scott M. Lieberman.

Lieberman called all of his local news outlets. Through the Tyler Morning Telegraph, his photos went to the Associated Press and around the world. Journalists recognized that these images — streaks and blobs of bright light in the deep blue sky — were the closest they could come to portraying this inexplicable, fatal event that had happened 34.5 miles above the Earth, killing seven astronauts.

The next day, Lieberman’s images appeared on the front page of hundreds of newspapers nationwide. The New York Times literally stopped the presses to substitute one of his photos for an inferior video screen capture. One made the cover of Time magazine that week. Globally, according to Lieberman, his photos appeared in 1,200 newspapers and were seen by an estimated 2.4 billion people within the first 24 hours of publication.

In 2003, few professional photographers were using digital cameras. This incident showed the power of digital photography to the world of journalism. That’s why Robert Daugherty, who was then director of the AP State Photo Center in Washington, called Lieberman’s photo “the digital image that played around the world.”

The Columbia disaster was Lieberman’s first foray into the world of professional journalism, but it was not his first foray into any kind of journalism. As a student, both at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn and at Wagner College, he had started to learn the craft.

He fondly recalls his involvement with the Wagnerian student newspaper and the Kallista yearbook. “I learned a lot. It was a very useful time from an educational perspective,” he says. “I had good editors who helped me develop journalistic and photographic skills.”

Doing photography for the Kallista gave him the opportunity to get his photos developed, which at the time was difficult and expensive. The Wagnerian didn’t publish many photos, but he wrote stories, helped convert the paper to a computerized layout system, served as the science editor, and became the managing editor during his senior year.

At the same time, he majored in biology and chemistry, completing the pre-medical curriculum. When he was accepted into the New York Medical College, his Wagnerian colleagues made note of it under the headline “Scott Accepted” in the May 3, 1983, issue.

“Scott worked on the Wagnerian for four years, annoyed at least eight editors, became managing editor this last semester, and was involved in many other activities during his attendance at Wagner,” they wrote. “We all wish Scott the best of luck in his medicinal future.”

rows of white beds in a huge, dark space
In a photo used on the front page of the New York Times, over 200 temporary medical beds await ‘special needs’ patients at the Maytee Fisch Convocation Center at the University of Texas at Tyler. The patients were evacuated from Beaumont, Texas, in preparation of the arrival of Hurricane Gustav on Saturday, August 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Dr. Scott M. Lieberman)

He graduated from medical school in 1987, and then trained in internal medicine and interventional cardiology at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital. In 1994, he joined Cardiovascular Associates of East Texas and the Tyler Cardiac and Endovascular Center. He has been practicing interventional cardiology and endovascular medicine ever since.

Little did fellow Wagnerian staffers such as Claire Regan ’80 (who became associate managing editor of the Staten Island Advance) and Jim McGrath ’86 (who became a sports journalist as well as a teacher and coach) know that they would see him again in the world of professional journalism.

Having his photos viewed on the world stage made a huge impression on Lieberman. “Getting published was a fantastic, visceral event,” he told the Poynter Institute’s Andrew Beaujon, who covered Lieberman’s story on the 10-year anniversary of the Columbia disaster.

It led Lieberman to decide that he wanted to continue contributing to the AP. That’s what differentiates his work from “citizen journalism” — a trend that some have linked to his story.

“To a certain extent, yes,” he replies when asked what he thinks about being called “the father of citizen journalism.” “But I didn’t work outside of editorial control, and I haven’t used primarily social media to self-publish my work.”

Silhouette of the space shuttle Discovery on a plan in a red sky
The space shuttle Discovery returning to Florida on its 747 piggyback ride, in the morning twilight above Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, August 2005. Photograph by Dr. Scott M. Lieberman

Instead, he worked with photo editors at the Tyler Morning Telegraph and the AP. Eventually he became so adept at editing his photos and writing captions that he was allowed to contribute directly to the AP national desk as an independent contractor.

Lieberman has enjoyed contributing to the world of AP photojournalism, not only professionally but also personally. He attended the party for Bob Daugherty’s retirement from the AP State Photo Center. He has visited AP bureaus around the country. “I have made a lot of connections and dear friends in the AP news business,” he says.

When you search AP Images online today, you’ll find nearly 1,000 photos credited to Dr. Scott M. Lieberman. “On almost any day, my pictures are being pulled and used,” he says.

What makes them so appealing is that he finds the unique angle, framing, lighting, and timing that make any scene truly arresting. “I look for the artistic in the natural moment,” he says, recalling the famed 20th-century photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s technique demonstrated in his influential book, The Decisive Moment. “I shoot anything that tells a story.”

View from an inverted aircraft.
Lieberman is not a licensed pilot, but he loves to fly. The pilot gave him control of this World War II-era training aircraft, the P-51 Mustang "Betty Jane" 2009, and Lieberman executed a roll while shooting photos. Photograph by Dr. Scott M. Lieberman
  • Steve

    I am the Director of the East Kentucky Science Center and Planetarium in Prestonsburg, KY., and have been teaching Astronomy and related topics for 43 years. I attended Wagner College to get training to go into the planetarium field, and graduated in 1978. My first “real” job was at Edward R Murrow HS in Brooklyn, helping to set up the new Hubble Planetarium, and assisting in the teaching of Astronomy classes. One of my students in the Advanced Astronomy/Planetarium class was Scott Lieberman! He came to Wagner a few times while in Murrow HS to see the Planetarium, and then enrolled there. Scott and I still keep in touch with each other!