Words have meaning, and they possess the power to change the world. They can inspire us to do amazing things, or to commit the most horrible acts. It’s up to everyone to understand they are responsible for wielding that awesome power. Because words cut the deepest, and yet leave no marks, they can truly be the most devastating form of abuse.
Photographer Richard Johnson, who has himself suffered from the worst kind of verbal abuse, created a series of photos to illustrate their incredibly harmful effect. These images, created for the Weapon of Choice Project, are important because they remind us that the terms we throw out in moments of anger or frustration can be just as damaging as physical abuse.
CAUTION!: The photos below feature victims and strong terms of emotional, sexual and verbal abuse.
We presented each participant in the Weapon of Choice project with a list of hurtful words, and we asked them to choose a word that had significance to them (some volunteered words we didn’t think of). You’ll discover as you explore the photographs in this project that there were very powerful words on our list, yet for the younger children who participated, the word they identified as the worst word, the word they were shy to say aloud — the word they only dared to whisper — was “stupid.” This surprised us, and it serves as good lesson that you never know what words may have the most devastating impact on children.
The idea behind the Weapon of Choice Project was to create a visual representation of the emotional damage words can do. World-class professional makeup artists generously donated their time to the project. The artists applied makeup to each participant to simulate an injury, and the hurtful word chosen by the participant was then incorporated. This participant, as a child, was victim of both verbal and physical abuse. The effects of the physical abuse, he said, have long since healed. The emotional scars from the verbal abuse, however, still remain.
We discovered that much of the verbal abuse directed at women and teen-aged girls was sexual in nature. “Slut” was a word that far too many participants had encountered. “Slut” is more than a hurtful word, it is an accusation. It is meant not just to demean but also to ruin a reputation. Often it is a betrayal of trust. Just as verbal abuse if often closely tied to physical abuse, verbal abuse with sexual connotations can be closely tied to sexual abuse — ranging from internet revenge porn to sexual extortion to sexual battery. Stories involving this type of verbal abuse were often the most difficult for participants to tell.
Most people with whom we have shared these images have had strong reactions. Many of the images make people feel uncomfortable. These photos are designed to make people feel uncomfortable because verbal abuse is an uncomfortable subject. Some have told us that viewing these photographs makes them feel somehow complicit in the violence. Once thing we learned while doing this project is that in almost all cases of abuse, there are three parties involved: the abused, the abuser, and a witness. Those who witness abuse but make no effort to stop it or report it are, in fact, complicit.