‘Weapon of Choice’ verbal abuse campaign sees victims physically scarred by the words used against them in this stunning series of photos

Photographer Rich Johnson, himself a victim of abuse, said he wanted people to abandon the old ‘sticks and stones attitude’
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A US photographer has launched an international campaign to raise awareness about the damage done through verbal abuse, releasing a series of powerful images in a bid to dispel the old myth that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

Based in Orlando, Florida, Rich Johnson invited friends and volunteers through social media to come down to his studio and offer their own experiences of the pain words can cause.

Those pictured in the campaign were given a list of insults and asked to pick the one which spoke most to their experience, while some volunteered their own.

Johnson, who himself suffered abuse as a child, said he want more people to take the issue seriously and abandon the old “sticks and stones attitude”.

He said: “We called the project “Weapon of Choice” because we found that physical abuse and verbal abuse often go hand-in-hand, and the choice to render emotional harm rather than physical harm is just that: a choice.”

Children taking part were accompanied by a legal guardian, and Johnson said one of the hardest parts of the experiences was for parents to hear some of the terrible experiences their sons and daughters had already been through in their lives, thanks to verbal abuse.

Warning: The following gallery contains images some readers may find disturbing

“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,” he said.

“The scars of emotional abuse are invisible, and victims of abuse don’t often talk about it. In the context of this photo shoot, however, people really opened up. It was a cathartic experience for a lot of us.”

Johnson said he had a team of world-class make-up artists who gave up their time to help on the project, and who made the very realistic injuries and wounds in words that can be seen in the gallery.

He said the process saw many of his and the team’s preconceptions challenged – and one word in particular surprised them by the power it held over the younger volunteers.

“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 issue of verbal abuse is a universal one, and a campaign not dissimilar to Johnson’s was recently launched in China.

Produced as a collaboration between the Center for Psychological Research, the city of Shenyang and the publicity agency Ogilvy & Mather, it involved experts interviewing six young offenders jailed in China for serious violent crimes.

The offenders described how they were verbally abused by parents and guardians in the childhood, as well as the nature of their offences. Campaigners then took the words most commonly used to abuse the teenagers and turned the Chinese characters into the weapons they used to commit their crimes – as you can see described in the moving video above.