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About the Weapon of Choice.

The Weapon of Choice project provides a graphic representation of the invisible pain caused by verbal abuse. Participants,children and their parents, were invited to choose a “hurt word” that has impacted their life.

Makeup artists then painted the word on participants’ faces or bodies, integrating the word into simulated wounds — bruises, scratches, and burns.

We chose the name “Weapon of Choice” because we have learned that, for the abuser, using words to harm is a choice. While listening to the stories from participants, we discovered how closely physical abuse followed verbal abuse. Often, when an abuser chooses to inflict harm, verbal abuse is just one of the weapons in the arsenal.

International Response

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 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.

Invisible Wounds

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.”


Teachers and students responded strongly to images related to bullying. Teachers all around the world asked to use the Weapon of Choice photos in their classrooms to start a conversation about bullying. Students asked for permission to include these images for school projects and presentations.

The Youth Protection Program manager for US FIRST, a national science and engineering program for kids, told us he wanted to use our photos in training presentations for adult event volunteers, coaches, mentors, and teens.

Debbie De Jager runs a program called YouthMAX where she visits high schools in South Africa. She’s begun using our photos in her presentations addressing personal character, bullying, and self-image for teenagers.


A middle school teacher from Boston told us that she deals with hateful names and comments from her kids all the time. She wrote, “I try to address it, and we often have discussions, but the images here get to the point a lot faster and are very concrete for kids to understand.”

Nadine Risi, founder of Lighting Their Way Home, used our photos in a campaign to raise awareness of the problem of bullying. She wrote, “Sadly, a lot of people do not react to bullying or abuse if they cannot see it in a tangible and physical form.”

Many people wrote, telling us about the pain that can be caused by bullying, but none expressed it more succinctly than a grieving parent in North Carolina who wrote this:

How about my son who took his life the very next day after he got a horrible message from his fellow student at school? How can I help others to visualize what extent hurting words can go?”

Domestic Violence

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.

Kristen McGeeney serves the Office of the President as the Title IX Coordinator for St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Kristen used some of the Weapon of Choice images as part of a presentation on rape culture which, she explains, “creates a misogynistic atmosphere in which harassment and/or violence towards women is deemed to be acceptable.” Some of the words in our project represent the types of attitudes that create the atmosphere she describes, and she’s found our photos very useful in helping to convey her message.

In Liverpool, UK, Anne Bolger helps run Sefton Women’s & Children’s Aid, a charity that provides emotional and practical support to women and children experiencing domestic violence. She plans to use some of the photographs to facilitate conversations with victims of abuse. These pictures have the power to validate a victim’s experience, allowing them to talk about their pain more freely and honestly.

If women are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence, including verbal abuse, then it is up to men to put a stop to it. Kevin Weir in Houghton, MI started a website called, which he describes as a “male leadership initiative focusing on healthy masculinity as means to ending violence against women.” He also operates a men’s batterer’s group, and he uses the Weapon of Choice photos to show men how destructive verbal abuse is.

Child Abuse

Children are particularly vulnerable to verbal abuse, as the words their parents use help mold a child’s sense of self-worth. Physical abuse leaves obvious signs, whereas the emotional and behavioral symptoms of verbal abuse are more difficult to spot. Moreover, parents are less likely to identify verbal abuse as actual abuse; they’re not aware of the damage they are doing.

That’s why Allan O’Keefe has started using the Weapon of Choice photographs in his anger management program for men. When fathers encounter photos of children who appear physically scarred by words, it gives them pause, and it helps them recognize verbal abuse as something harmful to their children.


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.

Witness to Abuse

We have learned that in almost every abuse scenario there are three parties: the victim, the abuser, and a witness. If the witness stands by and does nothing, then he or she becomes complicit in the abuse.

Blogger Frank Soto posted a reaction to our campaign. He said he experienced relentless bullying between the ages of 7 and fourteen — during which time he seriously contemplated suicide. He says, “The feeling of powerlessness that comes from being told that you can’t stick up for yourself — especially when no one else is willing to stick up for you either — is maddening.” Frank makes the point that if just a few kids reached out to him and showed some support, his experience would have been much different.

By looking at these photographs, you have become a witness to verbal abuse. That means if you stand by and do nothing, you are a party to abuse. Share this project. If you’ve been affected by verbal abuse, share your story. And if you’re a witness to verbal abuse, show your support to the victim, and help the abuser understand the pain they cause.