Billy Hunt’s scream portraits are all the rage (and joy)

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Photographer Billy Hunt has been snapping up national press with his Screamotron3000. (Photo by Billy Hunt) Photographer Billy Hunt has been snapping up national press with his Screamotron3000. (Photo by Billy Hunt)

Billy Hunt is a Charlottesville-based photographer who pairs fun, accessible concepts with high-quality image-making. He’s probably best known for his extensive photography of the Collective of Lady’s Arm Wrestling (CLAW) project, as well as a client list that includes Dave Matthews Band, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Post. His photos are bright and inviting without looking overly sleek or commercial. He’s at his best when capturing attractive documents of wild, impromptu spectacle—either found, or created. And his most recent project has brought more attention than anything he’s done before.

Scream portraits is just what the name says: a series of portraits in which each of the subjects is screaming. It’s a simple idea that is instantly understandable and immediately engaging. The shots are framed like traditional portraiture—a head-and-shoulders medium shot against a cloth backdrop—but the scream allows us to see a side that’s often hidden. Hunt takes the pictures with a camera connected to a karaoke boombox, dubbed the Screamotron3000. The box is wired so that the mic input levels trigger the shutter. Screaming allows the subjects to cut loose, and the results are wild. Subjects shriek, holler, and even tear at their clothes, frozen into still and silent moments of expression. Some look joyous, while others seem to be expelling pent-up rage. Local chef Rick Easton looks legitimately furious. My immediate response was to wonder what each of them was screaming.

“I’ve had people curse a blue streak at me,” Hunt said. “I’ve had people tell me they never loved me. I’m really open to all of it.” The results mainly fall into three categories: joy, anger, and sadness. “Mostly it’s joy mixed with a bit of anger, or joy mixed with a bit of sadness. But never anger and sadness at the same time,” said Hunt. “Some people pretty much go fetal when they’re getting ready for it. Some people look down. Some people naturally look up while they’re screaming. Some of them are consciously looking to God. A few people end up crossing their eyes in the photos, which looks really insane. They’re all beautiful little snowflakes.”

Hunt’s project has brought him no shortage of subjects willing to let loose for the camera, as well as attention from Wired magazine, “The Today Show,” NPR and the Huffington Post. “It’s blowing up. This thing is huge,” he said. “I would never have guessed that it would have such resonance with people. They love to do it. They almost like doing it more than looking at the pictures. It’s a way for them to interact with the arts.”

The idea for the project came out of frustration with contemporary portraiture. We’re an increasingly image-savvy culture, and it’s made us increasingly self-conscious about how we appear. “I saw how people—myself included—sabotage ourselves when we’re being photographed,” Hunt said. “My friends are thoughtful, considerate people, but we end up taking the worst pictures ever. I wanted to break people out of that, to get pictures where they’re not overthinking it. People don’t really care about looking seriously at photography anymore,” he said. “Image-making is so ubiquitous now. I practically have to put my photos in a Crackerjack box to get people to look at them. So I wanted something that would also have value as an experience.”

So did asking the subjects to scream remove their inhbitions? “It totally didn’t work,” Hunt said. “As it turns out, people are still really self-conscious while they’re screaming. And the reality of it is so much more interesting: You can see a war between the different parts of the brain. They’re all still thinking ‘How do I look?,’ but screaming is inherently unglamorous.” Hunt points out that people looking at photos of themselves will still see totally different things than what other people see while looking at those same photos.
The process led Hunt to start shooting slow-motion video of the screams as well. “There’s an arc to it. Some people just make one little peep, and some of them go on forever. A lot of people start to get self-conscious partway through the scream: ‘Is this a trick? Am I getting Punk’d?’ But once the steam blows off, you do get to see a little bit of what’s really under there. At this point, the fact that they’re screaming has become the least interesting thing about it, to me,” he says. “What’s really interesting is the way we expect ourselves to look, and the way we end up sabotaging that.”

As for the future of the project, Hunt says that he’s “looking for a travel trailer. I’d love to take this on tour, to county fairs and things like that. I’d love to shoot some celebs, too. Get Justin Beiber screaming.”

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