ON THE MORNING OF FEBRUARY 1, the sky rained down a scattering of debris on East Texas, heartbreaking remnants of the shuttle Columbia’s doomed reentry. Then came waves of NASA officials and rescue crews, state troopers and local sheriffs, curious visitors and respectful mourners, followed by the real deluge—the media and their cameras, as they inundated the small-town East Texas lives of farmers and landowners whose property had become roped-off recovery grids.
When documentary photographer O. Rufus Lovett arrived on the scene, it wasn’t to simply catalogue charred bits of wreckage. Instead, he captured the disparate feelings of horror and pride on the faces of those who had a piece of Columbia in their backyards. Taking a step back from the general commotion, he also documented the media as they swarmed the makeshift memorial sites and camped out behind the bank—his “coverage of the coverage,” as he calls it.
Lovett, a Longview resident, has been able to share his images of the Columbia disaster, which appear in this month’s issue, with his photography students at Kilgore College. Now he shares with us what it was like to cover the cloudy aftermath of such a shocking disaster.
texasmonthly.com: How soon after the Columbia shuttle disaster did you go out to the region where the debris had landed?
O. Rufus Lovett: I was there the Saturday that it happened and the next day as well. I had left early that morning to photograph the interior of a house for another project I was working on when I got the call from [art director] Scott [Dadich] and had to turn around and go fetch all my equipment and head out to Nacogdoches. I also went back the following Saturday as well to get a sense of the recovery.
texasmonthly.com: What was the whole scene like?
ORL: All the major networks were there, and of course, quite a few photographers as well. A lot of folks started coming in from different towns, just to look and also to pray and leave flowers behind the Commercial Bank of Texas in downtown Nacogdoches where the media had camped.
The media were just sitting around waiting for something to happen, and then some people would come in [to the memorial site behind the bank]. They’d have small children with them, they’d place some flowers down, and then one reporter would ask, “Where are you from? What are you telling your children?” Then all of a sudden all of the reporters and cameras would swarm; everybody wanted a bite of that.
texasmonthly.com: What did you anticipate photographing?
ORL: I had no idea what was going on, and I really had no idea what to expect. I was just listening to the interviews on the radio on my way down to Nacogdoches and trying to conjure up how I might approach it. I thought the simplest and most obvious thing to do was to try to find some of those people who had debris in their backyards and make portraits of them with their debris. When I was listening to the interviews, as sad as the situation was, I couldn’t help but find something humorous in the dialect and the descriptions that were given by the common folk out there. There was one lady who kept going on and on about how the falling shuttle looked like a big sparkler, and she just kept going on and on, repeating that.
texasmonthly.com: With such a swell of photographers on the scene, did you find that everyone was trying to take pictures of the same things?
ORL: Perhaps not. I think most of the news photographers were just trying to find the debris itself and photograph