Powerful Photos Illustrate the Real Damage Done by Verbal Abuse

Author note: The images in this post contain graphic language.


Most photographs, they say, are worth a thousand words, but these portraits by photographer Rich Johnson each tell the tale of only one word. It’s a word that, in the worst kind of way, can be more powerful than a thousand others.

Called Weapon of Choice — to represent the abuser’s choice to use these words to harm — this project was a collaboration between photographer Johnson, make-up artists and victims of both verbal and physical abuse.

Weapon of Choice

The images imply the verbal abuse is inextricably tied to physical abuse, because that is what Johnson found to be the case with many of his subjects.

“While listening to the stories from participants who had suffered abuse, we discovered how closely physical abuse followed verbal abuse,” he writes. “Where we found evidence of one, we found evidence of the other. When the abuser chose to inflict harm, verbal abuse was just one of the weapons in the arsenal.”

Weapon of Choice

The portraits truly do speak for themselves in a way most photographs don’t, but we’ll leave it to Johnson to explain this series a bit before diving into the powerful visuals:

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 [have on our list]).

At first, they were just words on list. But as each participant chose a word — the word that would be painted on their body and captured in a photograph — the words took on much more significance.

To say these images are hard-hitting wouldn’t be doing them justice. While some might be considered mild, there are a few of them which go to the extreme, and each can cause real damage when it’s used as a weapon.



Weapon of Choice




Weapon of Choice



Weapon of Choice


Weapon of Choice

Weapon of Choice

Weapon of Choice

Weapon of Choice


When we asked him if there was any message he would like to get across to our readers about this series, his answer surprised us. It was about how, in this case, letting go of some of the control photographers (and particularly portraitists) often hold so dear helped create much more honest images.

I think the one thing I would love to get across to other photographers and creatives is that this series was intended to be about the subject and not about me. I think as photographers we tend to try and control everything, and I took a back seat approach and let the subject make the face they wanted, sit how they wanted. These are their wounds, and the imperfections in this series are by design and some of my favorite details.

To see more of Johnson’s work, head over to his website or give him a follow on Twitter, Facebook and 500px.

Image credits: Photographs by Rich Johnson used with permission

  • Eden Wong

    I applaud the effort behind the message but in my opinion the glossy magazine over processed style (not to mention the amateurishly applied make-up) completely torpedoes the impact of the images. This could have been quite compelling otherwise.

  • Zachary Larsen

    Hey now, it wouldn’t be a photo documentary project without cranking the clarity slider up to 1000 in post, would it.

  • Zachary Larsen

    Hey now, it wouldn’t be a photo documentary project without cranking the clarity slider up to 1000 in post, would it. I appreciate the message behind the photos. It is an important one, but not every important message needs to have the action movie poster look. It makes me want to photoshop massive explosions into the background.

  • beautox

    Well I was taught “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me”. I think people should relearn this and harden up a bit. Same as all this “right not to be offended” BS

  • thingwarbler

    A+ for the concept — several of these are a punch in the gut and really make you sit up and pay attention. But I agree with the rest of the commenters: the execution w/ the HDR look and weirdly overdone makeup detracts from what could have been a home run.

  • mat

    U.S new photography style “Pedal to the Medal”. So, if the post prod is so caricatural, I cant’s stop thinking the “project” to be a bit demagogical. I can’t really believe that the “victims” are who we see in the photos. The artistic choice in this sort of campaign is critical. Here, it’s amateurish, nice try.

  • cardmaverick

    I love the concept! My only critique would be to get a better VFX makeup artist, the bruises just don’t look real enough.

  • Omar Salgado

    Why use signs and not symbols? Good intention, but no art in it.

  • Anomouse

    I think we ought to beat the crap out of bullies.

  • Vin Weathermon

    PP folks seem to take great joy in criticizing what they themselves cannot even come close to approximating, much less improving upon. This is good work, and there is a message. I doubt very much if detractors are capable of producing anything even close to this in terms of social value.

  • Another Cynical Bloke

    This would have been cool if it was shot on location

  • Dani Riot

    I love this set of images. Inside industry criticism aside, as its something clients and the public don’t even notice or consider. This is a set of images that provokes reaction and emotion. And is something that could make big changes in the way people are treated.

  • Aezreth

    And there’s always a guy like you in every comment section that thinks the only valid comment is one gushing with praise. As a pro photographer myself I would much rather receive constructive criticism than another pat on the back, there’s no improving to be made with the latter.

  • Paul K Rivera

    my buddy’s
    step-sister makes $82 an hour on the computer . She has been out of work for
    6 months but last month her pay was $15833 just working on the computer for a
    few hours. read Works77­.­C­O­­M

  • Kynikos

    Political Correctness? Check.
    Ridiculous amount of post processing? Check.
    Abject lack of subtlety? Check.

    Bring on the awards.

  • bob cooley

    I would agree with you here, except that the majority of what you see lately is not constructive criticism, which is valid, and helpful. Unfortunately the commenting system (as of late) has been mostly filled with snarky, trying to be clever negative comments.

    And most of the actual constructive criticism seems to be centered not around creating a better image, but around the individual commentor’s preferences in style (processing, post-work, etc).

  • Peter “Pots”

    I think that these images are compelling as well as something that needs to be said. Words(or a word) can be very hurtful and can scar the recipient for life.

  • David Vaughn

    I think it depends. I easily brushed off insults from my peers, but if the same insult came from my mom or dad I imagine it would be infinitely harder to deal with.

  • David Vaughn

    They do seem a bit PSA-ish. Kind of “This is your brain on drugs” esque. I think maybe it’s partly because some of the subjects seem kind of…disengaged? Kind of like they’re just waiting until it’s over and they can move again.

    I wish there were more like the man who has “nigger” written on his arm. That one in particular seems very genuine.

    I’m not knocking the message though. As someone who dealt with some issues at home, anything to show that words have more power than people think is a worthy project in my eyes.

  • vonrock

    Pick an image put a name of your choice on it and your and artist. WOW.
    you could change the names around and still make your point.
    Looking forward to your series on paint drying, and spit on sidewalks

  • Joe


    Powerfully contrived, forced, hokey and lame…

    More powerful adjective-laced click-baiting from the brain trust at petapixel….

  • joshsouzaphotos

    Right, fight mean words with violence.

  • R. Sue

    Clearly coming from someone who didn’t spend their formative years having the same hateful words spewed at them all day every day while authority figures who were supposed to protect you did nothing — which, to an 8-year-old’s mind, feels a lot like agreement with what’s being done to you.

    I tried to kill myself in the fifth grade because incessant bullying and refusal of anyone in authority to try and fix it had convinced me — CONVINCED, to my core — that I was worthless, ugly, stupid, and served no purpose to the world. The ‘sticks and stones’ BS can apply to just being insulted once or twice, or by a single person, but systematic bullying — in all its forms, whether from kids at school or in the form of domestic verbal abuse — is INCREDIBLY hard to come back from. I’m glad you’re lucky enough not to understand that as well as some of us do.

  • Kaybee

    I applaud the sentiments behind it. I did a similar theme on “Racial Discrimination” with battered face.

  • garbles

    Non-constructive criticism. A post of this type has nothing to do with the intended subject and instead reveals the insecure nature of the poster themselves. One can see that it strives to boost the ego of the poster by arbitrarily placing the poster higher than the intended subject. Unoriginal and without substance, I give this post a thumbs down.

  • Joe

    The intellectual superiority of this post is so extraordinarily overwhelming that I don’t know what to say, other than: A post of this type has nothing to do with the the post it is in response to and
    instead reveals the insecure nature of the poster him/herself. One can see that it strives to boost the ego of the responder by arbitrarily
    placing the responder higher than the intended subject. Unoriginal and without substance and full of intellectual as well as emotional insecurity, I give this post a thumbs down.

  • Joe

    Boo hoo. Some work is such contrived, forced, garbage that it is not worth the time constructive criticism would take to write. And PP seems content to water down any credibility they may have ever had by posting adjective laced click-fodder to boost their traffic rankings.

  • bob cooley

    And I see you’ve added to the ever-growing pile of unvaluable, non-constructive drek. The world really needs more trolls.

  • garbles

    The poster appears to now be using what I will call the Parroting method in which he simply repeats back what has already been said to him. Meant to be satirical, it instead shows a general lack of communication skills and implies a possible learning disability. Will observe more before making a determination.

  • Joe

    Meh. Same response that I have to this photo series– yaaawwwwwn . . .