Once we published our photos, we received swift international attention. Bullying, domestic violence, and child abuse are not just problems in the United States; they’re problems everywhere. We granted requests to media outlets in the UK, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Brazil, and Australia.
The photographer, Rich Johnson, appeared on Poland’s premier morning show via Skype. Our hurtwords.com website received visits from 144 countries and territories.
A photographer in Mexico asked permission to reproduce the project in Spanish. In Thailand, and English teacher asked if he could use the photos in schools to start a conversation about bullying — once the schools reopen after the military coup.
Almost immediately, feedback poured in. One of the most common sentiments came from victims of verbal abuse who told us our photos legitimized the pain they had suffered. One person wrote:
I grew up in a household of emotional and verbal abuse. I never felt validated, even though we had court cases. I’d cry after being turned away from groups that were supposed to be helping me, but thought I was of less importance because my scars were internal and left no physical marks for the world to see. Today I felt validated.
The manager of a County Division of Child and Family services asked if she could use our photos in training sessions. She coordinates about 80 social workers. After some time in the field, she explained, some social workers become immune to “emotional maltreatment” as a form of abuse. “Broken bones, burns, and bruises are easier to understand,” she said. Soon, the Weapon of Choice photos will hang on the walls of her office so her social workers will remember that “words hurt as much as fists.”
In fact, we found that words can hurt more. One anonymous high school student wrote, “I hate saying this, but I would rather be hit than be called the stuff I am called.” It is a common sentiment. The man who posed for the “Worthless” photo told us he suffered both physical and verbal abuse as a child. “The physical wounds have healed,” he said. “The emotional wounds still affect myself-confidence to this day.”
Women are disproportionately victims of verbal abuse. Men often choose verbal abuse because it leaves no visual scars, but as one victim after another told us, emotional wounds cut deeper and take longer to heal.
A self-described “old hippy,” Nancy Dabe told us she was the target of her husband’s verbal abuse for 15 years, and that it almost killed her. She escaped her husband, and is currently living out of her car in California while she finalizes her divorce. Soon she plans a 3000-mile walk from Santa Barbara to Washington DC to raise awareness for mental abuse. We plan to help.
In Fife, Scotland, Shona McEwan coordinates events that are part of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. This October, movie theaters hosting the film festival will feature posters of Weapon of Choice photographs in a campaign to raise awareness of verbal abuse. As the Communications officer for the Child Protection Committee, part of her job is to encourage the reporting of harm to children — including harm caused by verbal abuse.
These photos may not be able to stop abuse, but they can at least give hope to the abused. An anonymous teen sent us this message:
I am verbally abused at home by my mom, dad, and little brother. Your website visualizes what I feel all the time yet can never show. I have one year left of high school, then I can escape theses cycles of abuse. I am breaking the cycle from my mom and the cycle from my dad because, while I was never hit like they were as kids, words do hurt more than they say they do.