The Man Behind the Scream: Noam Galai

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?

No way.

He sold CNN the pictures and was acknowledged with a photo credit misspelling his name.

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.

♦◊♦

Next: Noam’s image becomes a symbol of protest in Iran

 

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About Rachel Kadish

Rachel Kadish teaches writing in Lesley University's MFA Program in Creative Writing, and is a VIsiting Scholar at the Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center. She is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. Her short fiction has been read on NPR and has appeared in Zoetrope, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, The Gettysburg Review, Story, and Bomb, in the Pushcart Prize Anthology, Lost Tribe: New Jewish Fiction from the Edge and various other anthologies.

Comments

  1. Great story! thanks for sharing all that new info about this story.

  2. This is an awesome story. So inspiring.

  3. Larry Kadish says:

    Wow, she can write!

  4. great topic. esquire would have liked this one. good job GMP for grabbing it, though.

  5. Graeme Jamieson says:

    This is really great, Rachel. Your family will be proud. Well done, and thanks.

  6. Nikki Herbert says:

    Noam – you are being robbed by big corporate thieves.
    Time to call on copyright laws – if you were the one stealing their stuff they will have you in jail by now.

  7. Thanks for the story behind the fascinating story. Shy people around the world are celebrating, quietly of course, and worrying that they might be next.

  8. Dan Levine says:

    Rachel, fantastic story, superbly written, so rich. I loved this line — words I couldn’t find myself:

    “The mouth is a black hole, crying to the heavens—but it’s not a passive howl. There’s something about it that implies that this scream is going to end. And when it does, the face is going to level its gaze at someone and take action.”

    That is precisely why so many have used the image.

    Thanks for a great story.

  9. Herb Ross says:

    First thing seeing the image brought to mind was Edvard Munch’s The Scream. This is a beautifully written story; especially moving is the account of this little boy, who unbeknownst to himself or anyone else has been living as inside a cloud for the first 3 years of his life, and reacts with wonder to what most of us take for granted-clear vision.
    The idea that Iranian protestors are inspired by an image of an Israeli is testimony to the artificiality of labels. Would it matter to them if they knew? I certainly hope not.

  10. nice
    great photo and great guy

  11. Extraordinary piece. I love how it steams through the personal, the political, the aesthetic, and the ethical, then deltas out into a meditation on identity. And then narrows back in to the personal, but with stars looking down.

    And the woven-in quotations!

    Wonderful.

  12. I mean “streams!”

  13. Gorgeous piece, Rachel. So surprising in content, so much to think about and so exquisitely written.
    Brava!

  14. Bob Brush says:

    Fascinating: a window on the evolution of culture in the new century. What’s to become of us if we lose our human face? Intricately (and masterfully) done, Rachel.

  15. Gloria Ho says:

    Talent apparently runs in this family!!!

  16. Alyssa Haywoode says:

    One person really can make a global difference.

  17. Wonderful piece, Rachel! Beautifully written and really thought-provoking. What an incredible situation for someone so reserved to find himself in. Thanks for sharing!

  18. on a local scale – In Israel, a photograph showing the full face of a celebrated Israeli writer was used and abused time and again by a political party he was strongly opposed to – and nothing could have been done to stop it.

  19. robert howard says:

    Luckily he only looks like that while screaming.

  20. Yael Goldstein Love says:

    What an amazing story. What a beautiful essay.

  21. Michel Cerf - מיכאל says:

    In « La Prisonnière » (A la recherche du Temps perdu), Marcel Proust describes the yellow section of a wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, which was so beautiful in the eyes of the dying writer Bergotte that he dragged himself to see it once more, just before his death. Thus the power of the visual is rendered into words, and without these words, many – of whom I regretfully count myself – could not grasp the entire beauty of the image: the words translate one beauty, visual, into another, stylistic, eloquent. Rachel Kadish does for the photo of Noam what Proust does for the yellow “pan de mur jaune”.
    תודה לצלם, תודה למי שכתב עליו
    מיכאל

  22. Beautiful essay, fascinating story. Thank you for giving this some real thought and thanks for sharing it.

  23. Michel Cerf - מיכאל says:

    I have taken the liberty of forwarding this remarkable piece of writing about a remarkable piece of photograpy to several friends and colleagues in various European countries. To the protesters in Iran who used Noam’s photo, I wish well, and hope Rachel’s essay will reach them as the photo did,
    To them all:

    السلام عليكم وتياتي
    ميشيل صرف

  24. Michael Zalis says:

    Such a thought provoking discourse on the power of human expression to virally spread far beyond geographic, ethnic, and national boundaries. Kudos!!!!!

  25. Jeffrey Sherman says:

    That such an image can be so powerful as to have universal meaning and go beyond cultural and political divisions would by itself make this story meaningful and interesting. But what strikes me deeply is its profound and fascinating origin. The “primal” screaming figure was created, not by a smart marketing entity, but by a person whose character is known to be devoid of verbal expression and who has communicated to us through a silent voice consistent with whom he is (at least until now). I, for one, have always longed to avoid the ambiguity and shortcomings of verbal communication and speak with the silence that Noam does.
    Thanks to Rachel’s beautifully written description there is much to contemplate and value.

  26. Ilona Toback says:

    My very first reaction as I started reading was could his mother possibly have a son who is painfully shy
    when she is so outgoing, but moving past that, the story was fascinating and thought provoking.
    Rachel, I never want to be the type who says “I knew you when you were just a baby”, but this time I say it proudly. Your writing is concise and I find myself paying attention to every single word and contemplating the verbiage and its message.

  27. Scott Stackpole says:

    Wittgenstein epigraphs seldom fail to pull me in, and this is a sublimely crafted portrait not only of a young man and unlikely celebrity but of a global phenomenon of digital identity. Were there any doubt about the power of visual imagery, Ms. Kadish’s words should eliminate it. Well done.

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  4. […] while ago, I heard a story on the news about a man named Noam Galai, and his “Stolen Scream”. Noam is an Israeli photographer. He took a few self-portraits in a screaming pose, uploaded them, […]

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