Sunday, July 3, 2011

Noam’s Runaway Face

So I read a very interesting article written by Rachel Kadish about what happened to her cousin Noam Galai’s image of himself yawning. Noam is a shy Israeli photographer, born in Jerusalem, who took a photo of himself in the mirror yawning, with his mouth wide open. Although a benign activity, the photo looked like he was having himself a huge primal scream. He apparently posted the image on Flickr. Then, unbeknownst to him, his yawning face took on a life of its own and went out into the wide world.

A year after he put the image on Flickr, while living in New York, he discovered that the image of his yawning face was appearing on T-shirts. He had never sold the photo to anyone for their use and no one had ever contacted him about using it. Yet his face had become public property and he was not making any money off the use of the image. He eventually used an online tool to search for the image and discovered that his yawning face, characterized as a “screaming man,” was appearing all over the world on T-shirts, skateboards, playing cards, and posters (for music concerts as well as political causes and events). His face was being spray-painted on walls as graffiti art. He no longer owned his face. Without his consent, he had become the poster boy for revolutions and underground artists.

The image of Noam’s face, viewed as an outraged scream, has become one of the primary images for the Iranian resistance movement and as such appears all over Tehran. The image of Noam’s face is thus being used as a key symbol of their cause by the same political activists in Iran who refer to Israel as a “cancerous tumor” and deny that the Holocaust happened. Noam is a Jew, born Israeli, who served two years in the Israeli Army, and who is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. I am trying to wrap my head around this irony. The image is being used by other political movements as well, by-the-way, including many in Central and South America. The image was used on banners in Spain and in Colombia calling for the release of certain political prisoners. It’s also being used by many musicians to depict a guy having a good time listening to live music.

Noam apparently is not phased by the fact that the world has absconded with his face and that his photograph has been reused without permission or compensation. He has started printing up his own T-shirts and other items with the image and has been selling them. He started a Facebook page where he tracks the use of the image. It’s a good thing that he isn’t bothered by where the image has gone. But it sure makes me wonder about intellectual property rights and credit for creative work and who owns what and how artists can maintain control of their material. Or if they should even try.

Here are some of the images of Noam that have appeared:

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