Photojournalist Marc Ellison is working on a graphic novel highlighting the challenges facing children in Central African Republic. This is not his first reporting project of this kind, having previously written about child soldiers in Uganda and survivors of forced marriage and female genital mutilation in Tanzania, but it is the first time he is encouraging readers to get involved in the reporting process.
One of Ellison’s challengess covering developing countries is getting audiences in other parts of the world to care about the stories coming from Central African Republic, Uganda, or Tanzania. For his latest graphic novel, funded through a grant from the European Journalism Centre, he is experimenting with an open invitation for people to become “armchair reporters” and weigh in by following #ArtBeyondBorders on social networks.
“Often we are more caught up in events happening in our day-to-day lives, or events happening just in our own country. It is hard to make readers care about the lives of strangers living in faraway lands,” he told Journalism.co.uk in a recent podcast.
Inspired by the choose-your-own-adventure books of the 80s, Ellison hopes this participatory element will help bring the stories to a wider audience.
“I was really engaged in those stories because you feel like you have an active role in the storytelling, you feel a part of it, and you are investing something of yourself in the book.”
Ellison is encouraging readers to give feedback throughout the reporting process, whether that's suggesting new areas of research or pointing out questions that should be asked in particular situations.
Stories from the reporting trip and the graphic novel will be published in The Huffington Post, and Ellison hopes the collaboration will also extend to moderation duties should the project receive too many messages to keep on top of in a time-efficient way.
The invite to participate also extends to readers in Central African Republic. The graphic novel is produced in collaboration with local illustrator Didier Kassai, and Ellison has also partnered up with radio station Radio Ndeke Luka as well as Unicef to promote the project in the area and get local know-how and guidance. Each weekend during the five weeks the project is running, Kassai will share the latest updates on Radio Ndeke Luka, and news about the project will also be shared through Unicef's U-Report text messaging service.
"The Central African Republic is one of the worst countries in the world to be a child," Ellison wrote in The Huffington Post, pointing out the impact the recent conflict has had on a country where over 40 per cent of the population are children under 15 years of age.
The graphic novel format has proven an effective way to tackle difficult subjects, allowing visual reconstructions of past events as well as granting anonymity to vulnerable people when required.
How this participatory experiment will be showcased in the finalised graphic novel is yet to be determined, as Ellison is concerned including too many interactive parts in the story will distract the readers.
"At the end of the day, it is about the kids' stories and the challenges they're facing, so I don't want the unique participatory element to overshadow that, but I am hoping certainly to have an element of it in there."
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