Rebecca Lieberman, a New York native who spent her undergraduate and graduate years studying visual design, had no idea that she would land a job in the journalism industry and have her work be nominated for an Emmy Award in 2020.
After receiving her master’s degree from New York University and her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, Lieberman set out to pursue a career in visual design. Little did she know, filling out a spontaneous job application her friend shared with her would eventually land Lieberman a spot as a senior staff editor for digital news design at one of the biggest newspapers in the country — The New York Times.
In 2019, Lieberman and Jeffrey Furticella co-produced “65 Block Parties, 5 Boroughs, 20 Photographers: See What They Found,” a photo essay on the lively and unique culture of New York City block parties. It showcases photos of people in diverse neighborhoods playing in the fire hydrant water, spraying silly string and dancing to the cha cha slide. In 2020, months after the pandemic hit and forced everyone indoors, the project was nominated for an Emmy Award under the category, “Outstanding New Approaches: Arts, Lifestyle and Culture.”
“Given what’s going on in the world now, I just feel like it captures a very specific moment before things really changed,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman grew up in Manhattan but never went to block parties. In the summer of 2019, Lieberman was walking around neighborhoods in Brooklyn — Bedford-Stuyvesant and Greenpoint — when she came across several block parties. As she was surrounded by people of all ages having fun, she knew she had to make this story come to life. Lieberman pitched this visual narrative to her previous editor and the 20 photographers embarked on their hunt for block parties in all five boroughs.
Composed of dozens of photos and short videos arranged in five horizontal slideshows — one for each borough of New York City — the photo essay is accompanied with a text written by Sandra E. Garcia, who wrote about the true nature of block parties and how they are dying out. The design of the project embeds a downward-scroll that displays all the photos so that not a single one is overlooked.
On a technical standpoint, the process of producing this project was straightforward, Liberman said. Since Lieberman hoped for this photo essay to tell a fun story, it was not difficult for photographers to capture shots of what they needed: people having fun.
“Shining a light on parts of life that are delightful or interesting or quirky or weird or really human — that to me is just a very worthwhile pursuit,” Lieberman said.
Representation across boroughs was something that Lieberman aimed to highlight in this project. She set out for this project to be a fun photo essay, but she also wanted it to be nothing short of a great visual story.
Although this was not a “traditional” news story, Lieberman understood the need for soft news in the media.
“People, myself included, [are] consuming a lot of news that are really sad, tragic or scary. Having stories that are about people and community and other forms of living is really necessary to take your mind off of it,” Lieberman said. “It’s like reading a good novel. You have something else to think about.”
Having no background in journalism, Lieberman understood that her position as a senior staff editor in the digital news design department was also not something that was “traditional” in a newspaper company. But after Lieberman landed a job at The New York Times, she learned how the newsroom worked and how she can use her knowledge of visual design to tell conceptual stories.
“The value that designers bring is very important,” Lieberman said. “Designers are people who really think about communication and audience in a way that can be applied to anything.”
Lieberman considers herself to be lucky. She pitched this story and had her team capture the last moments of what New York City once was before the country shut down. The environment of the city felt much different before the pandemic, Lieberman said.
Although the photo essay did not win an Emmy Award, Lieberman was honored for her work to be nominated.
Aside from her job at The New York Times, Lieberman is a guest lecturer at colleges every once in a while. She has given lectures about visual design to students at Columbia University and New York University.
After speaking with these students, Lieberman noticed that many of them were interested in visual design but were hesitant to pursue a career in it due to their lack of experience. To that, Lieberman tells them about her lack of journalism experience and how it led to her job at The New York Times.
“Sometimes just taking a chance [and] applying cold to a job or reaching out to somebody for coffee that you think might not have the time is just so worthwhile,” Lieberman said. “You never know what path it’s going to lead you down.”