A Picture says a Thousand Words: sending the right message about the realities of abuse through our images

By Becky Owens Bullard

The power of an image is immeasurable, especially when it comes to promoting awareness of an issue that people don’t exactly understand.  When we want every day citizens to engage in an issue they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist, we try to pique their interest by providing a photograph or video that they can associate with the issue – an image that will be burnt in their memory and make the issue real for them. Often times, these images that we use in awareness campaigns and community education on issues of abuse are our best chance of catching someone’s attention long enough to raise awareness and promote positive social change. Unfortunately, to inform our already media-saturated public we often resort to flashy visuals that do very little to accurately portray the crimes we hope to stop.

Image found at sf-hrc.org

Example: human trafficking.  Try looking up “human trafficking” on an image search and you may see what I mean about exaggerated or inaccurate portrayals of abuse. While there are some clever images (for example,  humans with price tags representing the idea that people are still bought and sold), the photos most commonly associated with human trafficking are of people shackled or locked in a cage. Now think about the movies you’ve seen or the books that you’ve read on human trafficking.  Most have likely contained a story line about someone who was kidnapped by a large criminal operation, thrown into a brothel and “rescued” by someone from their trafficking situation. I can’t tell you how many times I spoke with individuals when I worked on the national human trafficking hotline who were outraged about human trafficking because they had just seen this type of over-the-top image or video on human trafficking.

While these images and media portrayals of human trafficking are fairly compelling and may serve to spark interest or outrage in the issue, they are also misleading. A human trafficking case where an individual is physically chained or caged is not the norm. In fact, the “chains” that keep a victim tied to a trafficker are often the things that you can’t see – fear, shame, hope and love.

So how harmful are images that portray human trafficking victims as shackled, caged and battered? While some may argue that they are just an innocuous way to grab someone’s attention, these images often promote misconceptions about the issue and make it difficult for victims and survivors to speak out about what happened to them. For example, if someone’s understanding of human trafficking is limited to images of slavery, chains and rescue missions and they sit on a jury for a human trafficking case where they hear testimony from a victim who had a cell phone or was able to go to the store alone, that person would likely think, “this isn’t human trafficking.”

And they would be wrong. Cycles of violence and various non-physical forms of abuse are extremely common in both sex and labor trafficking. The failure to clearly communicate these dynamics is damaging to the issue as a whole and is what led me to create the human trafficking power and control wheel while I worked at the national hotline to detail forms of abuse beyond physical violence that occur in trafficking situations.

Image from Identity Magazine

Example: domestic violence. Now try an image search for “domestic violence.” You will likely see images of women and children bruised and battered, being choked, silenced and slapped. Think of the movies or music videos you’ve seen about domestic violence – they are often aggressive and extremely volatile. While we’ve started to get more creative with domestic violence images and encourage people to see beyond the physical forms of abuse (see this portrayal of verbal abuse), it is still all too common that a black eye is what is associated with abuse instead of the manipulation, isolation and emotional abuse that survivors often say are the most damaging. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase, “it’s not like he punched me square in the face” when I worked as a domestic violence victim advocate in court. The pervasive images of fist punching and serious bodily injury is what the general public, as well as victims themselves, associate with intimate partner and familial abuse.

So how harmful are images of domestic violence centered on black eyes and bruises? Just like with human trafficking, the flashy image of physical injury may seem completely harmless and a way to get a non-interested citizen to agree that domestic violence is a bad thing. But think of that person that is now sitting on the jury for a domestic violence case. When they hear that the defendant threatened the victim and restrained her from leaving the house, but there were no visible injuries, they just might think, “doesn’t sound like domestic violence to me.”  Again, they would be very wrong.

These narrow images paint an incomplete picture of abuse, resulting in unintentional victim blaming. Understandably, the general public may have a hard time reconciling the reality of abuse with the images that they are familiar with and wonder “why didn’t s/he leave if they weren’t chained up?” or “is it really domestic violence when s/he didn’t get hit?”

What’s worse, these images may also persuade victims to minimize their own suffering and think, “I am not a victim because I wasn’t locked away” or “I can’t be a victim because I didn’t get punched in the face.”

While the anti-violence movement has to find thoughtful ways to educate the general public about crimes that affect millions of people each day, it is important to do it the right way. Even though it is necessary to be catchy and inventive to engage individuals who would rather not hear about the prevalence of violence, resorting to exaggerated or inaccurate images that perpetuate misconceptions does nothing but harm victims and survivors while miseducating those who can help us end violence.

So let’s be true to what we know about abuse in the images we use for our education and awareness efforts – that it isn’t all big black eyes and someone chained to a wall. Abuse is complex, psychologically manipulative and incredibly difficult to end without an accurate understanding of its dynamics. It’s time for the anti-violence movement to rise above the desire to be provocative and instead, refocus on our passion of empowering others to end violence by providing images that truly reflect the crimes we seek to eliminate.


Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Pop Culture, Sex Trafficking, Violence Against Women

7 responses to “A Picture says a Thousand Words: sending the right message about the realities of abuse through our images

  1. Paula

    This is desperately needed. A shift. A truer picture. Thank you for this post.

  2. John Vanek

    Terrific job addressing an important issue we all face as trainers and abolitionists. It takes a lot of thought and effort to design and create effective and accurate images to convey the reality of issues like HT and DV.

    John Vanek
    Lt. (Ret.) San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force

  3. Teresa

    How can we expect people to help eradicate domestic violence and human trafficking if we paint the wrong picture? Images can be so powerful when words are simply skimmed through. This is a great article that portrays all too real examples of how these issues are being viewed by the public.
    Thank you for bringing this issue to life through your article! Wonderfully written.

  4. Marilyn de Guehery

    I’m going to be referring so many people to this. While money maybe generated by this kind of imagry, the damage it does to our mission by continuing to disempower real victims and minimise their real experiences is massive.

    Communities of compassion and charity need a BIG call to integrity when it comes to this. This is wonderful— don’t stop calling communicators to account for their overall impact.

    Marilyn de Guehery
    Designer, Love146

    ps: I try to hit on some of this in Love146’s Style Guide (http://www.issuu.com/love146/docs/styleguide?mode=window&backgroundColor=%23222222)
    Philosophy of Communications

  5. Funmi

    Another great post Becky. Personally i try to avoid the use of images in any piece I do on domestic abuse. The tendency is always that the group focuses on whatever image is used as the face of the violence. Any area of work where this is particularly troubling is female genital mutilation. We wouldn’t dream of showing a picture of someone being raped as a training tool. However in FGM training, pictures of the mutilation are frequently used. Well done for raising the issue.

  6. Shoe Revolt

    Reblogged this on shoerevolt.

  7. Ντινα

    This is beyond amazing article. I’m currently doing a documentary on trafficking in Greece and have found that these images actually do a lot of harm. People expect so much to see physical chains that they end up discrediting victims of such horrid crimes.we should be helping those womenby giving them a voice when they are ready to speak and celebrate their courage, rather that portray them as jailed,chained and weak.thank you so much for this article, best of luck with your work..

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