'Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' goes the old adage, but many of us know that that isn't always the case. In fact, unkind words can sting far more than a slap to the face - a fact underlined by this powerful photo campaign.
Rich Johnson, who is based in Orlando, Florida, is now a successful photographer - but as a child he was a target of bullying, and even as an adult he still recalls the pain of playground taunts. So he decided to use his creative talents to bring attention to the devastating effects of verbal abuse.
The result is a stark, provocative and unforgettable photo series called 'Weapon of Choice'. With the help of professional make-up artists, victims are depicted with terms of abuse like 'slut', 'ugly' or 'dumb' branded or scarred into their bodies.Johnson and his team also asked the participants, mostly friends and neighbours, to talk about their experiences with verbal bullying. Some, he says, found themselves finally opening up after years of silence.
"There were people that I've known for a long time who participated in this project, and I heard personal stories of abuse that really surprised me, stories I had never heard."
Conversations with young victims were often upsetting, Johnson recalls, particularly for parents who had to hear their children recount tales of playground torment, but they were also enlightening.
"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 team behind the project also uncovered an especially disturbing pattern of gendered terms of abuse used towards teenage girls.
"We discovered that much of the verbal abuse directed at women and teenaged girls was sexual in nature," Johnson states on the project's website. "'Slut' was a word that far too many participants had encountered."
The implications of this phenomenon are serious, he explains. "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."
Johnson says that he hopes the shocking images will 'provoke a conversation about the problems of domestic violence, child abuse, and bullying'.
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