The inside story of a shy photographer who no longer owns his own face
You’ve probably never met my cousin. But you’ve 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. There was nothing more excruciating for him 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 start-up. 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 steam pipe under 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 ordered 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 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 soon forgot about it. Months later he rediscovered it, showed it to a few friends, posted it on Flickr, and forgot about it once more.
About a year later, Noam was greeted at work by a tirade from one of his coworkers. 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 confused protestations that he hadn’t licensed the photo, Noam began an intermittent search of T-shirt stands wherever he encountered them. It took months to learn that someone was selling T-shirts bearing his screaming face in Brooklyn. Someone, it emerged, was selling them in SoHo.
No one had licensed the photo or contacted Noam about using it. 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 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. Noam’s upturned, screaming face was on posters in Honduras for a political initiative he knew nothing about in a language he couldn’t read. It was on banners in Spain and Colombia calling for the release of political prisoners he’d never heard of, accused of crimes unknown to him.
There were crude uses of the portrait and sophisticated ones. A few of those who had downloaded the photo had altered it, adding vampire’s teeth and blood, or a knife in the mouth. Some had tinted it, enlarged it, set it on a black or orange or blue background, but most had left it unchanged.
Only once was Noam paid for the use of his portrait: National Geographic asked to use the image on the cover of a special issue they printed before the U.S. elections. The image, they said, was exactly what they needed. The theme of the special issue was “power to the people.”
With this single exception, though, the use of Noam’s self-portrait had gone out of his control. It was sketched and silk-screened, crayoned and printed, stenciled and spray-painted on concrete walls.
Noam’s response was mostly a sort of awed fascination. He liked seeing how people used the portrait, what settings they chose. He had no quarrel with anyone, except perhaps those selling scream T-shirts for a profit. He posted an album on Facebook: images from all over the world, of his face. A face that seemed to imply protest. Rage. Despair. Fist-pumping populism. Or, in some cases, just a rockin’ good time.
Shortly after Noam began investigating the spread of his scream photograph around the globe, he discovered something completely unexpected. Images of his face were turning up graffitied on walls in Tehran. In Tabriz City.
His portrait, it turned out, had been picked up by some antigovernment protesters in Iran. In the year following the Green Movement’s first open clashes with Ahmadinejad’s government—a violent confrontation watched anxiously by the world—images of Noam’s face were reproduced by activist graffiti artists, sometimes veiled in red-painted blood. His anonymous face was rendered by anonymous Iranians on metal fuse-boxes and walls, alone or amid a crowd of other spray-painted images: part of a mute but vociferous message dangerous to utter aloud.
One of the hallmarks of the Iranian resistance movement has been the nighttime scream—protesters climbing unseen to their rooftops in Tehran and elsewhere to fill the dark skies with cries of “Allahu akbar,” a slogan the religious government can’t technically oppose, but of course everyone understands the message. In this setting, it seems natural that Noam’s portrait might strike a chord. Seen in context, on rusted Tehran notice boards papered with torn fliers or on the barren sun-struck walls of a Tabriz City construction site, the face is a portrait of suffering and rage. 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.
The fact that members of the Iranian protest movement are using the face of an Israeli in their street art has surfaced here and there. It’s been a small ironic punch line in a few articles—one in an Israeli newspaper, two in Germany, one in the Netherlands, one in Turkey, one in Switzerland. Until recently, there had been a few blog mentions, but nothing in the U.S. press. And nothing in the Iranian press.
An acquaintance who runs a network of Iranian journalists made inquiries about the portrait and its uses; based on what she was able to learn, the origin and identity of that screaming face doesn’t seem to have made it onto either the Iranian artists’ or the Iranian government’s radar. The graffiti artists who put Noam’s face on walls seem to have no idea that the screaming face they’re reproducing is, in fact, the face of a Jew . . . a Jew who happens to be a grandson of survivors of the Holocaust (which Ahmadinejad has gone on record calling “a lie,” a “mythical claim,” and “the opinion of just a few”) . . . a Jew who also happens to be a former soldier of the country that Ahmadinejad calls “the flag of Satan,” and that even Moussavi, the relatively progressive candidate some of the anti-Ahmadinejad protesters champion, calls “a cancerous tumor.”
When Noam learned that his self-portrait was being used by anti-Ahmadinejad protesters, he emailed some of the Iranian graffiti artists through Flickr, where they’d posted images of their work under aliases.
“I told them, ‘It’s me. It’s cool. I’ll be happy to see more of what you do.’ ”
One of the Iranian graffiti artists wrote back.
It was a two-line exchange.
“He was cool,” Noam said. “He was ‘Nice to meet you, I like your picture.’ I didn’t tell him I’m from Jerusalem.”
My cousin’s face screams mutely from the walls in cities where protesters’ voices can be safely raised only under cover of dark. At the same time, it’s a handy image for rockers and artists and T-shirt vendors in dozens of countries, a fun decal for skateboarders, a conversation piece for bridge players who deal cards with his face on the backs. It’s being passed from hand to internet-hand, used and reused, altered and interpreted to fit the needs of the user.
There’s something glorious and terrible about a world in which a picture of one’s face can sweep around the globe this way, part of a human chorus changing us for better and worse. Waves of information and images rebound around the planet, erasing privacy and mystery—while simultaneously allowing a familiarity with others’ lives that just might save us. Something in it inspires an almost religious awe: your face, traveling the world at the speed of data. The notion makes me feel more human. But there’s also something in it that unnerves me. I can’t work out whether it’s the end of innocence, or the start of it.
Because there is also something dehumanizing in the spectacle of a young man’s face being carried on the wind like dust. Because the same technology that allowed young Iranian protesters to find common ground with a former Israeli soldier also means that anyone’s face can be downloaded, stretched, tinted, appropriated, and made into an emoticon to suit someone else’s needs—a collection of features that can be digitally altered by anyone, anywhere.
If your face isn’t private property, what is?
Noam’s face is lean, his hair short, his eyes brown behind the camera that routinely obscures the view of his face. He doesn’t stand out in a crowd, which is—still, even after everything—how he likes it. There’s nothing in his appearance that would make you guess his face is all over the globe—and perhaps that’s part of the reason it is. He could be any one of us, his appearance almost anonymous behind the raised camera through which he registers, over and over, the present moment.
It seems to me he’s changed a bit since his face traveled the world for him. His eyes seem to have lost some of their caution. It makes it easier to notice the kindness and curiosity there.
Noam is still shy. He still speaks in brief sentences more often than in paragraphs. But although he first said, in response to my questioning, that he didn’t think this experience had changed him, he did observe that maybe it had brought him more fans on the Facebook fan page he’d now launched. And in the past few months, his photography business has grown, expanding outward from sporting events into some celebrity shoots. When people find out he’s the guy whose screaming face they’ve seen, he says, they ask for his business card. He identifies himself more readily as a photographer. As an artist.
Noam regularly updates a Facebook album with images of his portrait from around the world. Most recently, he added a photograph of his screaming face stenciled onto the wall behind a toilet in a West Village bar. He’s started a small sideline, too: selling Scream products. Mugs, T-shirts, magnets, aprons, even shoes. He says he takes it as a compliment when other artists use his photograph, and he likes seeing what they do with it. He says he doesn’t worry about loss of privacy, because so far no one has recognized his face on the street. He’s glad, he says, that the Iranian protesters are using his face. “If you do something cool,” he says, “you want people to see it.”
It’s Noam’s screaming adult face that’s become the property of the world: a gaunt, anguished challenge roared into the firmament. An anonymous Everyman, a hieroglyph for protest. But I remember my cousin’s face when he was a boy. I remember him at the age of 3: pale and expectant, with a quiet gaze that seemed to take in everything, while his older brothers tossed soccer balls inside the house. On a routine pediatrician’s visit in Jerusalem, though, my aunt was told to take Noam to an ophthalmologist; the ophthalmologist, in turn, discovered the extreme nearsightedness that meant Noam would walk through life from then on looking at the world through powerful lenses.
When the eyeglasses were ready, my aunt took Noam to pick them up. By the time my aunt led him from the building, thick lenses perched on his face, it was already dark.
Only a few steps out onto the street, hand in hers, he stopped, his small round face upturned and agape. A boy scanning the borders of the world as he knew it, and glimpsing something astonishing. Ima, he whispered, pointing at the stars. What are those?
Rachel Kadish is the author of the novels From a Sealed Room and Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story. Excerpted from The Good Men Project Magazine (March 10, 2011), a “gathering place for thoughtful men with a conscience.” www.goodmenproject.com