He Asked for My Hand (Then Broke It)

He gave me a ring when he proposed/He gave me a broken bone for nothing at all


The lines echoed in my head when I was browsing through a list of powerful images raising awareness of domestic violence (DV) and stopped at this picture, a part of the series His Presents by Martin Lever (UAE) (2008) for City of Hope:


This image is a powerful example of Semioticsthe study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation – which probably is the backbone for the most efficient social campaigns.

A diagram summing up the key concept of sign in semiotics

The signifier is also referred to by Barther (cited in Fiske and Jenkins 2010, p. 80) as the “denotation” which is the “common sense, obvious meaning” of the sign, and the signified is the “connotation” which is the interpretant based on the reader’s “emotions […] and the values of their culture”. To make it easier to analyse the picture, I temporarily set aside the notion that “no sign is purely denotative” as nothing can be free of evaluative judgement (Chandler 1994).

The picture I chose is an X-ray image of a female hand with a wedding ring decorated with a heart on it and what looks like a broken thumb. Zooming in closer, you can see the signifiers more clearly, as these words come into view:

“He gave me this when he proposed”
“He gave me this for nothing at all”

Behind the image, the signified is, to me, a newly-wedded woman who suffered from domestic violence exerted by her own husband, as alluded by the bone fraction in her thumb – her husband “asked for her hand” and then broke it.

The interpretation continues onto numerous layers of meaning, making this image (although not visually impressive and/or shocking like some others on the same topic) so influential.

“Poignant reminders of what abused victims hold on to in staying with their abuser” (Malkin 2013)

The text is deliberately made very small in ratio to the entire image, suggesting that the stories of DV victims are not always explicitly and publicly told; they could hide their own sufferings, even. And the reason they do that and continues to stay with their abusive spouse might be that they still have hope in their love – what the heart on the ring implies, in those tender moments between the two spouses as captured by a witness of DV (Lewkowicz 2012).

his presents full
His Presents – Martin Lever

When put alongside the rest of the image series, the picture helps convey an overall message about the vicious circle imprisoning the victims of DV: The husband gives his wife jewelry as gifts for occasions – wedding, anniversary, birthday – followed by repeatedly giving her broken bones as results of his violent abuse.

Sadly, sometimes the sufferings might only come to an end when the woman’s life does.


bcm110 asm 01 post 02 illustration
Image: “I got flowers today!” (artwork by me)




Chandler, D 1994, Semiotics for Beginners.

Charles, C 2015, I Got Flowers Today – A Poem to Battered Women, FEMMEPOWERED, weblog post, 13 November, viewed 18 March 2017, <http://carlanacharles.com/a-poem-to-battered-women/&gt;.

Fiske, J & Jenkins, H 2010, Introduction to Communication Studies, 3rd edn, Routledge, London.

Lever, M 2008, His Presents, image, City of Hope, viewed 18 March 2017, <http://www.creativeadawards.com/client/?client=City+of+Hope&gt;.

Lewkowicz, SN 2012, Domestic Violence, image, Time, viewed 18 March 2017, <http://time.com/3525038/photographer-as-witness-a-portrait-of-domestic-violence/&gt;.

Malkin, C 2013, ‘Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?’, Psychology Today, 06 March, viewed 18 March 2017, <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/romance-redux/201303/why-do-people-stay-in-abusive-relationships&gt;.

Author: Minh-Anh Mia Do

book-smart and sugar-addicted || the written word & all things linguistics || email: dmad920@uowmail.edu.au

6 thoughts on “He Asked for My Hand (Then Broke It)”

  1. This is such a powerful topic, and such a great image to deconstruct. I like the idea you’ve included about the denotation being ‘common sense’ and the connotation being ’emotional’. Your insight to the size of the writing is quite informative, and I think combined with the social construct of x-rays being associated with injury, we can also see the ring as being symbolic of injury and abuse as well. The poem you’ve included is so powerful; it’s written in the same sort of voice as the text in the image and together I think it’s undoubtedly provocative. Can’t wait to read more!

    1. Thank you so much, your idea about the x-rays being associated with injury is brilliant, I haven’t even thought of that!
      All the best 🙂

  2. This was an extremely deep and powerful topic and somehow you wrote about it in an extremely graceful way. The images along with the poetry make the reader feel what you’re writing which really helps with understanding what you were trying to say.
    The way you have explained semiotics is perfect and it has inspired me to go back and look into mine because I know I have not done such a great job as you have.
    I am really impressed with this blog post.

    1. Thank you so much Lizzie 🤓! I’m sure though that each of us would have a unique and equally interesting approach to Semiotics as a topic 🙂
      All the best!

  3. This is amazing. I love how much you thought into it because it made me think so deeply about it as well. Domestic violence is something I am truly passionate about so your in depth explanation of this image is seriously inspiring. Also, I love the way you incorporated poems, you definitely thought outside of the box! You’ve explained yourself so well that everyone would have to understand what you’re saying even if they aren’t so aware of the issue. Perfect choice of image. I love your blog!

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