Photo-taking doctor has shot at Pulitzer

A Texas cardiologist snapping pics of the Columbia return captured a moment in history.

By Damon Adams — Posted March 15, 2004

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On a calm Saturday morning in Tyler, Texas, Scott Lieberman, MD, and his family gathered in their backyard to watch the space shuttle Columbia return to Earth. Dr. Lieberman clicked away on his digital camera before the family went inside to catch the landing on television.

When Dr. Lieberman heard a sonic boom four minutes later, he knew something horrible had happened. He hurriedly looked at the digital images.

"As soon as I blew up the images on the camera back, I knew what I had."

What the Tyler cardiologist had were shots to be seen round the world. Dr. Lieberman's photos of the space shuttle breakup were viewed by 2.4 billion people, according to the Associated Press. Time magazine featured one picture on its cover.

Now the AP has submitted the doctor's photos for a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography. Winners will be announced April 5.

Since he snapped the photos on Feb. 1, 2003, Dr. Lieberman, 42, has attained national notoriety, become a celebrity in Tyler and delved more into his passion of photography.

"It's been a very humbling kind of experience. It was a tragic event. The loss of the crew and what it stood for was very sad for me," said Dr. Lieberman, a father of two. "People say it's a beautiful picture, but it's a picture of seven people burning to death."

The seven-person Columbia crew included two physicians.

When he realized the significance of his photos, the former college newspaper editor went to the local paper, the Tyler Morning Telegraph, and the photos were distributed around the world by the AP.

Time offered $25,000 for exclusive rights, but Dr. Lieberman said distribution of the photos to the media worldwide was more important than cashing in. In the end, he received $10,000 from the AP and a 50-50 split on future sales.

Reprints of the photos have been auctioned to benefit charities such as the American Heart Assn., Dr. Lieberman said.

He has shared his experience at newspaper editors' meetings and has become friends with photojournalists. His photo has been displayed in the Library of Congress as part of an exhibit, sharing the same room as Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence.

"I walked in and my jaw dropped. It was in a cabinet with the Wright brothers picture," said Dr. Lieberman, whose name was mentioned in the exhibit. "The docent said, 'We've never met anyone [in an exhibit] who's still alive.' "

Dr. Lieberman has collected hundreds of newspapers that ran his photos. A framed copy of his Time cover hangs in his office. Patients have asked him to autograph their magazines and newspapers, keepsakes for their children and grandchildren.

Dr. Lieberman has since shot some news photos for the AP and snapped pictures for a society magazine in Texas. Accrued vacation days have provided him with the necessary time for traveling to talk about the photos.

"My partners have been fairly understanding. They see this as a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said.

Dr. Lieberman never knows when or where his shuttle photos may surface. One heart patient knew the cardiologist would be at the hospital, so he went in clutching a copy of the Time issue with the doctor's photo.

"He asked me to sign it before he went to the cath lab."

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