The Power of Images, the Horrors of Child Abuse
by Danielle Pierce
Casa do Menor is a program that helps protect young children from abuse and maintains their rights to health, freedom, and respect. An ad from Casa do Menor’s 2009 campaign in Spain titled “Hands” features a nude blonde girl being groped by adult hands as she stares helplessly into the camera. Similarly, an ad published in 2008 for the Child Health Foundation in Germany shows the back of a cowering, shirtless, blonde girl with bruises and scars that evoke Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the popular Scream mask. Both ads use a young girl as a symbol of innocence in order to shock the audience with the horrors of child abuse. The powerful effect that these images have on us results from a combination of persuasive techniques. Some of these techniques are apparent, such as placement and lighting, while others, including props and allusions, strike viewers’ subconscious.
Both “Hands” and “The Scream” put a young girl and a face near the center of the composition. In “Hands,” viewers are drawn to the focal point of the ad: the blonde girl being groped by a cloak of masculine fingers as she stands bare in the center of the room (see fig. 1). She does not appear frightened or as though she is
Fig. 1 “Casa do Menor: Hands”
putting up a fight. Instead, she looks at the camera, numb, as if she has grown accustomed to abuse. It pulls at viewers’ heartstrings that such a young child already has so much knowledge of how cruel the world can be. In “The Scream,” the child’s face is not visible (see fig. 2), which makes it easier for viewers to relate
Fig. 2. “Child Health Foundation: The Scream.”
to a daughter, sibling, or other loved one. We supply the identity of the girl, and since we can then empathize, the face of her abuse—the scream created by her bruises and scars—becomes much more convincing. The Child Health Foundation logo floating below assures us that they can still help her, either by donating or by simply becoming more aware of her plight.
The element of color in the two texts sets a wary atmosphere. The background of “The Scream” is pure black, connoting evil and a sense of doom. Viewers focus on the black backdrop, and wonder why this space remains unfilled. Perhaps the lack of light is more striking because it makes viewers feel empty. In contrast, the color scheme of “Hands” is mostly grey with only neutral colors. The dim lamp in the corner of the room offers little comfort or possibility of a happy ending for the girl. Interestingly, she stands in light that does not come from any source in the room. This pool of light again returns our eyes to the little girl, the focal point, and again forces us to focus on the cape of hands groping her body. The overwhelming number of adult hands are much larger than the child’s small ones. They seem to be crawling from the floor of the child’s home, indicating that her only possible sources of security and happiness are in fact part of the danger: viewers are witnessing an unthinkable crime happening in a place that is supposed to be sacred and comforting. The white type in the upper right corner—the brightest color in the ad—says, “Certain things hang on forever. Set the kids free from violence and abuse.” Subconsciously, we connect Casa do Menor with the idea of a savior since white is considered “heavenly” and pure. This connection is also available in “The Scream” because the color of the text mimics the color of the bruises and scars on the girl’s back. Viewers connect the color with the “Child Health Foundation” logo and know that it can help. Both visuals are striking, so their words do not need to be large; we respond emotionally to what we see, and are then forced to look closer to read the print.
The props in “Hands” add significantly to how the audience feels about the advertisement. For instance, the blonde child in the center of the visual is holding an adult blonde Barbie. This contrast between mature adult and innocent child, clothed doll and naked youngster, only makes the advertisement more twisted. The doll is supposed to symbolize childhood and imagination, but the child looks like she is barely holding on to it. In dropping the doll, she will lose all purity. As further proof of her loss of innocence, a stuffed animal bear is sprawled out under the couch. The couch is supposed to symbolize comfort and relaxation, but instead it engulfs her toy bear in darkness and leaves her completely alone. This hints at the childhood nightmare of a monster being under the bed. The girl cannot retrieve the animal because she would be tainted and engulfed by the dark evil of the house.
Another key prop in “Hands” is the toy clown in the foreground, which draws viewers’ attention because it is one of the only points of color in the photo. This symbol is so important because it recalls a sense of fear from childhood. Clowns are usually a form of comedy and entertainment, but it is not abnormal for young children to fear them. The fear comes from clowns’ inability to change their facial expression to show real emotions. These static, unrealistic “human” forms break every conception a child has of humanity and are “common motifs of early childhood fear in general” (Durwin 15). Furthermore, clown costumes usually amplify human body parts, which can illustrate how the child views her abuser. In the child’s mind, the attacker is most likely mutated and intimidating. The attacker looks distorted, like the facial features of a clown. Just as a phobia of clowns can leave scars, the child pictured will be scarred from sexual abuse.
The mutated face of a clown is similar to the allusion in the bruises and scars of on the girl’s back in “The Scream.” “The Scream” image, from the painting by Edvard Munch, has many different interpretations. Some say that “The painting has been linked with Nietzsche's declaration of the death of God” (Fineman). This relates to the ad because the child may reject the idea of an omnipotent God after experiencing the horrors of abuse; it can even make the audience wonder if there can be a God when such terrible things are happening every day. Also, the image of the mask has become familiar in pop culture thanks to the infamous Scream horror movies. The series of movies consist of a group of murderers who torture and plague their victims, similar to how an abuser taunts a child. The mask on the child’s back represents the monster that left the wounds on her body. The long-term trauma of abuse is carried on throughout the victim’s life, just as the main character in the Scream series continue to live in fear. The movies remain some of the most popular horror films, and the allusion to these terrors makes the audience think about the pain the child is going through. Furthermore, it is interesting that the bruises and scars are on the girl’s shoulder because they symbolize the burden of pain and terror of abuse that she must carry without being able to speak out. The bruises and scars are striking because they suggest that the child has been whipped. This connotes slavery and the lack of free will, extreme ideas sure to affect any audience.
The advertisements’ appeal to emotions is particularly important. Both ads provoke emotions with their bold displays of inhumanity. They go against moral values and societal norms. The lack of family photos on the wall in “Hands” makes us lament for the child who is raised in an environment that is anything but kid-friendly. The empty walls represent that no one is there to help her and that society needs to step in. The child cowering and staring into the darkness in “The Scream” makes us wonder why she is still in her situation. These two advertisements work to accomplish the same purpose: to stop child abuse by encouraging people to report suspicious activity and to donate their funds. As a whole, their controversial compositions shock us; the result is that they raise awareness about the plight of children like the ones they portray.
"Casa do Menor: Hands." Ads of the World. WebMediaBrands.Inc. 2011. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.
"Child Health Foundation: The Scream " Ads of the World. WebMediaBrands.Inc. Web. 28 Oct. 2011.
Durwin, Joseph. "Coulrophobia & The Trickster." N.p. N.d. Web. 1 Nov 2011. <
Fineman, Mia. "Another Look at Edvard Munch's The Scream." Slate. The Slate Group. LLC. Web. 1 Nov. 2011.
Danielle Pierce is a freshman majoring in English and minoring in Secondary Education. She is a part of United Way and spends her summers working at her town’s local ice cream shop in Connecticut. Writing is one of her favorite things to do, and she hopes to become a high school English teacher able to inspire others to love the subject as well.
Danielle writes that “Analyzing photos, essays, poems, etc., is my favorite kind of writing": "I love the different interpretations, and I love that one piece of literature can mean one thing to one person and something completely different to another. When I was given the assignment to rhetorically analyze a photo, I knew it was something that I wanted to do my best on. I started with a scratched up, crinkled outline, took it to the writing center several times, and finally felt that it was worthy of turning in.”