By Jena Lynde-Smith

Marc Ellison’s groundbreaking multimedia graphic novel on conflict in the Central African Republic is being released today and Ellison traces the project back to his work as a Master of Journalism student at Carleton a decade ago.

A House Without Windows, with illustrations by Diddier Kassaï, is published by Humanoids.

Ellison left lucrative work as a computer programmer to follow his passion for storytelling and joined Carleton’s MJ program in 2011. He deployed his innovative approach to multimedia journalism on a Carleton-sponsored internship in Rwanda and through research on young women who’d been forced to serve as child soldiers in northern Uganda.

“I tend to gravitate towards telling quite traumatic stories, giving the voice to the voiceless. Typically, the voiceless in these scenarios are children,” Ellison said.

Marc Ellison (Tim Finlan, Toronto Star)

“It’s one thing to read about these poor kids having to work in diamond mines but it’s something else entirely to put on a pair of goggles and be standing shoulder to shoulder with these kids in this huge mine, or to be visiting a field hospital in the middle of the dessert or hanging out with street kids in the streets of Bangui,” he said.

Ellison is now a data journalist based in Glasgow for the BBC but has also done a series of graphic novel projects using multimedia techniques to tell the largely forgotten stories of children impacted by conflict.

Copyright © 2021 Humanoids, Inc., Los Angeles (USA) for English Edition

A House Without Windows tells the story of children in the Central African Republic who have been orphaned, forced to work in diamond mines and have lost access to basic education and health care, due to what has been coined as the “forgotten crisis.” The graphic novel is a comic-book style piece of multimedia journalism, making use of illustrations, photographs and pop-up 360-degree video – a videography technique where a view in every direction is recorded at the same time.

“Right now, there’s dozens of schools that are still occupied by armed groups and there’s over 900 schools that are non-operational as a result of the fighting. Half of the country’s children are out of school because of this conflict,” Ellison said.

Ellison spent six weeks in the Central African Republic with the book’s illustrator and CAR native, Diddier Kassaï. They visited refugee camps, diamond mines and interviewed street kids. They also got involved with a local radio station where they would interact with locals and receive tips on stories. He said they did their best to make sure they were telling an all-encompassing story.

Copyright © 2021 Humanoids, Inc., Los Angeles (USA) for English Edition

“I really wanted to educate an international audience about a part of the world that they have probably never heard of and I wanted to show people just how much this conflict has impacted children,” Ellison said. “I wanted to remind people that this is reality.”

Ellison said he made the conscious decision to not be in his book, it follows Kassaï instead.

“The story’s not about me. I wanted it to be following a central African character and to try and remove as much of the western-colonial gaze as I could,” he said.

House Without Windows is Ellison’s fifth graphic novel, but the first to go to print. His other projects have explored various crises across the African continent including child soldiers, female genital mutilation, child marriage, women jailed for their husband’s crimes, and children accused of witchcraft.

Ellison was a computer programmer for over a decade before he decided to change his focus. Having travelled around East Africa and already holding a passion for photography and videography, he said human rights reporting seemed like a natural fit.

Copyright © 2021 Humanoids, Inc., Los Angeles (USA) for English Edition

Ellison joined Carleton’s Master of Journalism program in 2011 and that summer went to Rwanda through the Rwanda Initiative. Ellison also received funding from Carleton and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to travel to Uganda for his master’s research project. His project looked at the challenges facing women who had been forced to be child soldiers with the Lord’s Resistance Army. The research he conducted was later used towards his first graphic novel, Graphic Memories.

For that project, Ellison gave cameras to five former child soldiers to help him document the challenges the women had faced since returning to their former lives but also to provide the women with a new skill, which some of them used to create informal photography businesses.

“I wanted them to know this was their story too,” he said.

Copyright © 2021 Humanoids, Inc., Los Angeles (USA) for English Edition

Ellison said that working on the Uganda project was his first experience dealing with trauma. He recalled one particularly difficult interview that he conducted with a woman who was not only forced to see her husband killed and but was then forced to eat his body parts.

“I do liken this sort of vicarious trauma as sort of a mental scab. Over time, you get desensitized to it but every now and then you’ll hear a particularly horrific story and it basically picks off that scab and makes it fresh again,” Ellison said.

He said that speaking on the phone to loved ones and regular de-briefing with friends or family have been important coping mechanisms for him. Despite the emotional toll of researching these projects, Ellison said they remain his passion.

Copyright © 2021 Humanoids, Inc., Los Angeles (USA) for English Edition

“The Data job keeps the food on the table and keeps the lights on but the real passion is doing these African projects,” Ellison said.

Ellison said that though his goal is to educate an international audience on these issues, it’s also to reach a local audience on the ground. He said he is particularly proud of his book Safe House, which covered female genital mutilation in Tanzania. The book was printed in Swahili and used to inform young girls about their rights and as a tool to educate parents in local communities.

“Doing this work is incredibly difficult. The mental health impact, the funding, getting out there, getting published – it’s very challenging. But it’s really worth sticking with it. It’s unbelievably rewarding.”

House Without Windows is available for purchase here

Monday, March 22, 2021 in ,
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