Dee Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman


Dee-Hibbert-Jones & Nomi Talisman

From a conversation between Dee Hibbert -Jones, Nomi Talisman and Janeil Engelstad

June 2011


Janeil Engelstad (JE): What inspired Living Condition?


Dee Hibbert -Jones (DHJ): Our principal question when we first approached this project was how could a democratic society vote to execute its own citizens? Personally we are both against the death penalty. We are both from countries that do not have the death penalty. (Dee Hibbert-Jones is from the UK and Nomi Talisman is from Israel.) Israel has a very specific relationship with the death penalty, but principally it does not exist and England doesn’t have the death penalty. So we come from countries where we do not consider this a proper form of punishment. Were interested in projects that look at power, politics and emotions. Our projects bring together deeply personal perspectives on big picture policies, seeking out ways individuals manage power systems from the mundane to the extreme. We started Living Condition after finishing a large-scale project, Psychological Prosthetics, where we were looking at emotion in politics and how people handled everyday political problems and issues. We are interested in the idea of affect and politics and how the person on the street handles what is happening in the world.


When we had the opportunity to work with the anti-death penalty advocacy group, Community Resource Initiative (CRI) we saw the death penalty as an extreme embodiment of issues we had been looking at for some time. One of the things that we both said instantly was, “How does one handle something like this? How can anybody manage to have somebody in their family commended to death and executed by the state?” We started to think about the trauma and the impact it has upon an entire community. It is the larger sense of what we have been looking at for years, the emotions that people are feeling in relation to what happens in the world.


Nomi Talisman (NT): Only in a much more condensed and extreme situation.


DHJ:  Our last project was much more diffuse. We asked the general public if we could help them handle their emotional baggage in political times, which was both a serious and satirical question. For our next project, we wanted to hone into a community and look at these questions in depth.


NT: With Psychological Prosthetics, the umbrella was really wide but the audience was really small. With Living Condition we have a specific focus. We want to reach a larger audience and talk about how people deal with trauma, under extreme circumstances. 


DHJ: We see he state execution as something that impacts everybody who allows that to happen. So rather than this being specifically a “prison project” where we are dealing with people who have potentially done something against the law and are now being punished for it, our project brings attention to the families and raises questions about a country that executes its own citizens. That is a trauma, which is even bigger even than the community.


JE: What have you discovered during the process of producing this project?


NT: For me, one thing that is interesting is that people here really see the death penalty as a part of the justice system, including one of the people who we interviewed. He said that he supported the death penalty until it came knocking on his door. One person that we interviewed wanted to interview us first to see where we were coming from. One of the first questions that she asked us was if we were for or against the death penalty. It showed us how embedded the death penalty is, not only in politics, but also in American culture and the structural organization of the whole country.


DHJ: The sense of disempowerment that one can feel in the face of a bureaucratic decision was one reason that we came to this project.  We were struggling with Nomi’s immigration and trying to keep her in the United States, which took seven years. It led us to feeling empathy for a group of people who did not do anything, yet feel entirely disempowered by a system. Their loved one may or may not have done something, but they have no power and they are basically going to deal with the trauma of a state execution.


We hope to manifest in Living Condition how deeply traumatized people are by this experience and in ways that are so visceral. We hope that the people watching the film and transmedia project will experience a visceral relationship to the trauma, not just to the crime or to the execution, but to the impact of having this sort of trauma in their life.


NT: We are we are talking to family members in three different cases. In one of them the person was released, one case was pending and in the last case the person was executed 20 years ago. So the reactions and the state of trauma in each case are very different.


We interviewed the brother of the person who was executed. He told us his story very cinematically full of details, and he was totally breaking down into tears. Through this repetition of telling he was reliving the whole story and I am sure that he has this experience every time he retells the story. The people that we interviewed about the pending case couldn’t manage to answer some of the questions. There was a block and they just didn’t go there. At one point another interviewee told us, “It’s really hard for me to listen to Bill, his story is unbearable.” Which, I can completely understand. The family of the person who was released, they too have blocked out parts of the story. They absolutely do not want to remember and talk about it, even though he is out of prison and fine. We chose to animate these stories as a way to allow the viewer to see and hear the stories in new ways that allow access and empathy.


JE: So even when there is a positive outcome to a case and the family member is released from prison, trauma is still present?


NT: Yes.


DHJ: The interesting thing about Bill was that he realized that his brother had committed a crime. He turned him in to the police with the understanding that his brother was to get psychological help and instead he was executed. So he has to live with the guilt of having done something that led to the execution of his brother. Even though it is 20 years later and he has told the story a number of times, he completely broke down. The weight of that is just extraordinary.


The generosity of the people that we were working with and the ability for them to open has been extraordinary. It was really remarkable to me because we are coming from outside of their communities, being white (the participants are all African American) and from different countries, which is something that I have to resolve for myself.


JE: Thinking about the public discourse around trauma as it relates to capital punishment, it is almost always about the victim and the trauma suffered by the victim’s family. Whether it is the media, politicians, or the general public talking we rarely, if ever, hear about the trauma that is experienced by the family of the accused.


DHJ: Almost everyone that we talked to was never asked in any official capacity to tell their story. It was shocking to learn that someone in a family could be put to death and that family is never given the opportunity to give their perspective.


NT: Which is another reason that we started this project. CRI told us that nobody has ever before asked to talk with these people or even looked at the impact of the death penalty on the whole community. Something that we did not touch upon in the video is the large movement of victim’s family members who are against the death penalty because they have gone through this traumatic experience and they don’t want to go through it again. The trauma is impacting people on both sides of the issue.


JE: Have you noticed as you interact with the participants; I know that you are going back and talking with them several times in this process . . .


DHJ: And we also show them what we have done. We want to honor the people who are participating and part of that is showing the drawings and asking them how they feel about the way we are rendering them.


JE: Involving them in that process is important for it gives them a larger voice and a role in decision-making. Do you notice a sense of empowerment taking hold within in them as they participate in this project?


DHJ: One of the things that Bill says at the end of his narrative is, “Thank you for putting that box out there.” He considers this to be a civil rights issue. So he is thanking us for giving him a soapbox for his civil rights.


JE: That is empowering. So who is your audience and where do you distribute this? 


NT: There are different audiences that this project can reach, or serve, empower and /or educate. And those audiences are very different. The final pieces, or pieces, can be a straightforward documentary and also an advocacy piece that has a particular audience. CRI will get a clip that they are going to use for training and advocacy. We are also interested in an art audience, but obviously a piece on television reaches a larger audience than a piece in a museum. So it is a piece that lives on multiple levels.


DHJ: We also want to bring the work back to the communities. We have to be careful with that, as two of the stories are still alive with either gang or other community related issues. We wouldn’t want to bring something back to a community that sparked something else. So that is something that we will work closely with CRI and other organizations on. Part of our intention is to develop the piece as a discussion point for the community. We have also talked about the possibility of webisodes connected to advocacy.


JE: Do you see or intend for a larger political or social mission with the final piece?


DHJ: Hopefully the piece changes perceptions, changes minds. It is a very slow burn in that way, which is why we were thinking of the potential of connecting advocacy to websisodes. I go back to one of themes in To Kill A Mockingbird, walking around in someone else’s shoes and how that experience can shift someone’s mind and perceptions. I have a desire for people to see themselves through this work, rather than thinking that the death penalty is not their issue because it is happening to them and not us. There is this perception that anything that is political is public and therefore we have no real power over it. I am really concerned with the apolitical relationship that people have to the greater sense of political decision-making. I would like that to see that shift and that is also a desire through this work, for people to realize that even in the sense of voting they have personal power.


NT: Another thing to consider is that we live in a country divided by states that have very little social responsibility and this is one thing that they do take on. “We kill people, but we don’t necessarily provide them with health care, but we kill them.”


DHJ: That’s a really good way of putting it, because we both come from failed social democracies of one sort or another. The sense of social responsibility and the sense that you can govern your community on a political and personal level doesn’t really exist. Something that we are trying to create is the understanding that there is a link between what happens to you personally and the major decisions that are made politically.