Who Is This Man, and Why Is He Screaming?

The inside story of a shy photographer who no longer owns his own face

| July-August 2011

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    Noam Galai / www.noamgalai.com

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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?

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