Margaret Eby
May 22, 2014 11:00 am

That old stick and stones saying? It’s not true, and photographer Richard Johnson is on a mission to prove it with his new series “Weapon of Choice.”

In his photos, Johnson visualizes the effects of verbal abuse as physical scars. The subjects of his pictures appear with hateful terms—“stupid,” “trash,” “ugly”—imprinted on their skin like bruises.

The images are striking, disturbing, and though-provoking. They’re a reminder of how deeply and powerfully words can hurt.

“I think the overall goal [of the series], in my view, would be to shine a light on the fact that, when we’re focusing on bullying as a society, we focus on actual physical abuse,” Johnson told The Huffington Post.

“It gets a lot of attention when a father abuses his son, daughter or wife, but I think the issue goes back deeper,” he continued. “Before they actually choose to put their hands on someone, there’s more verbal abuse leading up to it.”

Part of the inspiration for the series came from Johnson’s own experience with verbal abuse, he writes on his website.

“My brothers and sisters and I were all abused as children—physically and emotionally,” Johnson wrote. “For me, I feel like the verbal abuse hasn’t had a life-long impact but I know that for some of my siblings, it’s deeply affected their lives. One thing that really became apparent during the shoot is that in any abuse situation, there are three people: the abuser, the abused, and a witness. I don’t think I’ve ever really been the abuser in my life, but I realized that I’ve been a passive witness to abuse—I didn’t do anything to report it or stop it—and that’s just as bad.”

Johnson wrote that taking the photos was a “cathartic experience” for him.

“I want people who are quick to dismiss bullying or verbal abuse to take a second look,” he wrote. “I’m motivated to find a way to make a difference with my photographs.”