Noam Galai’s self-portrait was appropriated by street artists, T-shirt makers, publishers, and protesters around the world—without his permission. This is the inside story of a shy, private young man who no longer owns his own face.
The face is the soul of the body. —Ludwig Wittgenstein
You’ve probably never met my cousin. But you have probably seen him scream.
My cousin, Noam Galai, is 26 years old. He’s the youngest of four brothers, a thin guy with brown eyes and a buzz cut, and he speaks so rarely that, although I’ve known him all my life, the sound of his voice is still a surprise. Shyness, in fact, has been a central fact of Noam’s existence for as long as he can remember.
Growing up in Jerusalem, he refused to speak in class or even go to the chalkboard. To Noam, there was nothing more excruciating than finding himself the center of attention. His unwillingness to step forward caused many of his teachers to assume he didn’t know the answers—still, he found it easier not to explain himself. When, at the end of high school, he was required to take an English-language exam involving an oral component—a five-minute conversation in English with an examiner—Noam, raised by an American mother, walked into the room and told the examiner softly in Hebrew: “I know English, you can trust me. I’m just not going to show you.” For some reason he still doesn’t understand, she passed him.
Time only solidified Noam’s stage fright. By his early 20s, he’d finished his service in the Israeli army and had moved to New York City to work for his brother’s Internet startup. On the side he took jobs as a photographer—working mainly at sports events. One day he was at work in midtown Manhattan when the building was shaken by an enormous explosion. Amid the confusion, Noam took his camera and ran outside, onto a street engulfed by steam and a hail of flying rock and scalding water shooting 20 stories into the air. A nearly century-old steampipe under the Lexington Avenue near Grand Central had exploded, opening craters. Throngs of New Yorkers were fleeing the site, faces covered with dust, some literally running out of their shoes in their panicked certainty that this was another 9/11. Noam sprinted in the opposite direction—toward the explosion. He photographed the scene for nearly half an hour before police secured the site and order him back to the safe zone.
Professional photographers representing major news outlets had been required by the police to photograph from behind the safety line. Some of them, seeing Noam returning from the site with his camera around his neck, asked to see his photographs. He showed them images of the gaping crater; of buildings wreathed in steam; of expensive shoes abandoned on the Lexington Avenue sidewalk.
A few hours later he received a phone call from someone at CNN: would he come to their studios to be a guest on their morning program? Show his one-of-a-kind photos and talk about what he’d seen?
No way, said Noam.
The CNN rep urged him to reconsider. This was a great professional opportunity for him. He realized, didn’t he, the exposure his work would receive?
If he didn’t want to appear on camera, then, would he agree to be interviewed over the phone?
He’d shied from CNN … yet when hundreds of people had fled the site of an explosion, Noam had run toward it. When I asked him about this some time later, his reply was typically terse.
He shrugged, considered. He said only, “I trust myself.”
And, he added, “I don’t need to talk to the rocks and the water.”
In his free time, Noam liked to play around with self-portraiture. He’d experiment with different characters or looks. It wasn’t like speaking in front of a crowd. With the camera, he could control everything. The resulting photos were somehow someone else—not him.
One day he decided to try out an idea he’d had for years. “Every time I was tired or busy and I saw myself yawn in a mirror,” he later said, “it looked cool and scary. I thought it might be cool to do a picture like that.”
Noam tilted his head back and took a chin-level shot of himself, his mouth wide in a scream. The resulting image was unsettling—a youth with buzz-cut hair and a long, narrow face, aiming an open-throated cry skyward.
Noam liked the picture. But his parents, with whom he was living at the time and who served as a first, generally appreciative audience for his photography experiments, didn’t seem particularly impressed. Their reaction, according to Noam, was a muted, “Hmm, nice.”
We can see nothing whatever of the soul unless it is visible in the expression of the countenance; one might call the faces at a large assembly of people a history of the human soul written in a kind of Chinese ideograms. —George C. Lichtenberg
Noam forgot about the photo after taking it. Months later he re-discovered it, showed it to a few friends, posted it on Flickr.com, and forgot about it once more.
Perhaps when distant people on other planets pick up some wavelength of ours all they hear is a continuous scream. —Iris Murdoch
About a year later, Noam was greeted at work by a tirade from one of his co-workers. Why, when he knew she liked his scream picture, hadn’t he bothered to tell her he’d licensed t-shirts with his self-portrait on them? She’d just seen someone on the subway wearing a t-shirt with his face on it, and when she’d asked the guy he’d said he’d bought the t-shirt from a vendor in Brooklyn—and she would think Noam could have bothered to mention it.
After Noam’s confused protestations that he hadn’t licensed the photo, after his intermittent search through t-shirt stands, he finally realized: Someone was selling t-shirts bearing Noam’s screaming face in Brooklyn. Someone was selling them in SoHo.
No one had licensed the photo or contacted Noam about its use. Curious as to how far his face had spread, Noam eventually tried searching Flickr for scream images … then using a tool called “Tineye” to search for images that match an uploaded picture. Despite the crude nature of these searches, some 50 images popped up.
I like to imagine Noam’s face, lit in the glow of his computer’s display, at the moment the results of the search appeared on his screen.
Noam’s photo—and his face—had gone international.
His image, downloaded from Flickr without his knowledge, had been used on a rock-concert poster in Chile. It had been reproduced on a poster advertising a completely unrelated event in Argentina. And on one in Germany. And on one in Brazil.
The image had rippled outward in all directions, passing straight through national barriers. Noam’s screaming face had been graffitied larger-than-life onto walls and sidewalks in Montreal, Utrecht, Rome, Mexico City, and London. It had been printed on the backs of playing cards. Painted onto skateboards. Carved into Halloween pumpkins.
What’s more, Noam had become—literally—the face of several political movements.