UNAIDS in partnership with Together For Girls presented the portraits from Richard Johnson's powerful Weapon of Choice photo essay at an event on Capitol Hill designed to raise awareness for the relationship between AIDS and violence. Worldwide, an extraordinary number of girls and young women acquire HIV through rape, and many more endure violence and ostracization when it becomes known that they are HIV positive. One thing that survivors of violence and those infected with HIV share is a stigma that makes them ashamed to reveal the trauma they have endured.
While the Weapon of Choice project doesn't specifically address rape or AIDS, it does provide a graphic representation of the invisible pain caused by verbal abuse. In the photo essay, each participant chose a "hurt word" that had touched his or her life life, and special effects makeup artists created a simulated wound that incorporated the chosen word. The models wore those words on their skin -- as if they had been branded. They are difficult words to wear: "slut," "cunt," "nigger," "faggot," and others.
There is a stigma attached to each of these words. Once someone has been labeled, they carry that stigma personally, often in painful silence. We shouldn't have been surprised that someone who has been branded "HIV Positive" would identify with these photos; but they did identify, and we were surprised. We should have suspected that a rape survivor would relate to the photos "Worthless," and "Slut"; but it wasn't something we considered when we conceived of the project.
Then again, from the moment we captured the first image in the Weapon of Choice project, we understood the project would become bigger than what we had imagined. As soon as we decided to make these images available to anyone who was fighting against abuse, we began receiving requests from all around the world -- a schoolmaster in Thailand, an abuse hotline in Scotland, a counseling group for abusers in Alaska, and many more. We thought our project would teach people about the nature of abuse, and from the response we received from people who connected with our photographs, it turned out we were the ones with the most to learn.