Review by Frank Plowright
A House Without Windows is one of several works by British photojournalist Marc Ellison in combination with comic artists detailing aspects of life for children in an African country, and the first to be issued as a printed book. Others can be found on his website.
In his introduction Ellison notes former French colony Central African Republic, is second bottom of the world’s human development index according to the United Nations. Years of troubles have left a population beset by poverty and malnutrition, and humanitarian aid is hampered by continuing social insecurity. His photographs of and interviews with the children of capital city Bangui deliver the distressing reality of life for them, their experiences illustrated by Central African Republic artist Didier Kassaï, who also carries out some interviews.
Ellison delivers a heartbreaking procession of stories, interviewing children to find why they’re on the streets, and why the people trying to care for at least a few of them are starved of resources. Grace’s story on the sample art is distressingly common, respect for children’s health and wellbeing absent. Children that escape beatings at home become prey for the local gangs, while others may not survive accusations of witchcraft. Ellison details even worse atrocities, thankfully drawn with some restraint by Kassaï. A widespread belief is that education is worthless when diamond mining can earn a fortune, yet that flies in the face of the experience of those who do find diamonds, where their share of the profits isn’t even enough to keep them away from the mines the following day.
The title comes from Doctors Without Borders area co-ordinator Aude Thomet who refers to the lack of media interest in Central African Republic resulting in a house without windows. The lack of global attention enables the situations to continue, resulting in a country where practically everything that can go wrong does go wrong, people embedded in poverty with constant armed factionalism preventing effective administration. The stories build pictures of lives that will have you weeping with disbelief and horror that life is so cheap anywhere in the world, yet Ellison’s compassionate photographs show ordinary children, not victims. A surprising amount are wearing replica team shirts from English football clubs, and a startling example of the lunacy is Muslims only safe in a Catholic enclave.
A House Without Windows is evocative reportage shining a light where it needs to be shone via two humane creators. Let’s hope it’s drawn more attention and perhaps saved some lives.
A 360 degree documentary film by Ellison gives more background on the country and footage of people interviewed for the book. Readers interested in reading about the Central African Republic in the 1980s can look out Cindy Goff’s memoir comics Tales From the Heart of Africa, surprisingly never collected as a graphic novel.