June 3, 2011 at 3:26 AM ET
His is the face of revolution in the Middle East and in Latin America. He's on the cover of a book published in Mexico. He's an unforgettable image of anger on T-shirts everywhere. He's an icon painted by graffiti artists on city walls in Spain and on castle walls in Iran. But really, he's none of those things.
Noam Galai is a photographer who's had his self-portrait stolen and misused all around the world -- a stunning case of global intellectual property theft and identity theft that illustrates how life in the digital age can easily rob people the very essence of their identity.
Galai calls it "The Stolen Scream."
“Even if I remove my original picture now, nothing will change. The picture is out there now,” he said. “I don’t think they are stealing from me, they are stealing from each other now.”
Five years ago, bored and playing with his camera, the then-21-year-old Israeli art student who'd just arrived in New York City took a series of self-portraits and posted them on Flickr. Most of the images involved Galai hamming it up with an exaggerated primal scream.
"I had been thinking about trying it for a while, but the whole session took maybe three minutes," he said.
The concept worked, as Galai generated an image that unmistakably evokes human frustration that has boiled over. Even his parents, when they saw the picture, called to see if he was feeling alright.
"They said, 'Why is our son taking a picture like that?' So I knew the images made people flinch. They felt something," he said.
In fact, they worked too well. Soon after, the image drove someone to copy it and steal it. Then another and another. Galai doesn't really know how it started, but he remembers the day several years ago when a friend congratulated him for selling the image on T-shirts after seeing someone wearing one featuring "The Scream" on the New York City subway.
"I said, 'what are you talking about? I'm not selling shirts,' " Galai recalls.
That set the young photographer on a hunting expedition that eventually revealed that his picture -- and his face -- were being used all over the world for purposes both mundane and profound. He found buttons with his face being sold at tourist traps in the U.S.; he found a rock band album cover using it. He found many T-shirts in New York City stores – and was forced to pay up to $30 apiece to get his hands on them. An author in Mexico used the picture on his cover, crediting a different artist. He found graffiti in Iran using his face to inspire revolution.
The latter didn’t bother him.
"If people there want to get rid of the government, and giving them my face helps, why not?" he said.
Galai has found examples of his face used in other anti-government movements -- posters in Honduras, and banners in Spain, for example. And he's been told the image has been used in Syria and Egypt as well, though has yet to receive images confirming that.
Galai recently started a blog to chronicle all the uses he's found, and Web users around the globe are sending him new examples. An artist in the Netherlands, for instance, recently mailed him a painting bearing his likeness that she had unknowingly created and used in an exhibition.
The strangest story he’s yet heard from blog readers came from a Romanian traveler who saw Galai’s story and remembered a photograph he’d taken a year earlier in Cantavieja, Spain. Galai got the address from the Romanian, typed it into Google Street View, and browsed to a picture of himself on a wall there.
For all this trouble, Galai has been paid precisely once for use of the image, by National Geographic, which used his image on its Glimpse magazine. He has mixed feelings about that.
"There are two ways people use the image," Galai said. "One is when people use my picture to make money. I hate when people do that without asking. But when it's used for movements and art, I feel like maybe I am helping them, and I don’t really mind."
There is plenty of irony in some of the uses – and not just because the image has been used in Iran, and Galai took it only a few weeks after leaving the Israeli army, where he drove tanks. Almost always, the image is used by people who are angry, frustrated and on the verge of taking a radical step. He was none of those things when the picture was taken.
"I'm exactly the opposite,” he said. “I'm calm and happy most of the time, and rarely angry. ... I got the idea when I was yawning in front of a mirror."
Any similarities with Edvard Munch's famous "The Scream" painting also are purely coincidental, he said. "I did it just for fun. I was just bored. I usually take the best pictures when I am bored."
The massive and persistent intellectual property theft has gotten the attention of some photography organizations. A group called Fstoppers recently published a video chronicling Galai's adventure in identity and copyright theft.
In a blog post about the video, Fstoppers founders Patrick Hall and Lee Morris raised the possibility that Galai may have spared himself all these troubles by watermarking the image before he posted it –but then concluded that may not have been the best thing in the end.
“For a photographer, the biggest thing you are trying to do is get your work in front of people and get a name for yourself. For a lot of people, the first bit of recognition comes out of nowhere. Then the idea is to catch that wave and use it to propel your work,” said Hall in an interview with msnbc.com. “The way I look at it, Noam has had maybe 100,000 people see the video. It’s caused controversy, but it’s brought a lot of attention to his work. … If (the original images) were licensed properly, maybe no one would have taken an interest in them. “
Galai, who now works as a photographer and advertising artist for AOL in New York, says the Stolen Scream has been more a blessing than a curse for him. It has brought him attention that has won him some free-lance work. He also has begun selling his own T-shirts and other souvenirs on his website.
"If someone is making money off my image, it might as well be me," he said. "But it’s still weird to see my face in so many places and so many different uses. I don't think I'll ever get used to it.”
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