Exhibition Profile: Photographs by Numbers by Mona Chalabi

‘Too often, people get lost in statistics, and statistics are lost on people.’ Chalabi’s new exhibition aims to show the human cost behind the numbers in Iraq.

The history of Iraq over the last decade has been decided by many things, but not by ordinary Iraqis themselves. More than arguably any other non-Western nation, Iraq has been shaped in recent years by outsiders’ perceptions of the country, built up by a drip-feed of statistics and images that claim to represent the facts on the ground: numbers of costs and casualties; images of statues being toppled; the infamous “45 minutes” dossier.

‘Photographs by Numbers’, Mona Chalabi’s first public exhibition, is aimed at countering our misperceptions of life in Iraq. ‘Aren’t the images that you associate with Iraq quite violent, emotional ones?’ she asks. For her, ideas of Iraq in the British consciousness have been dominated for too long by ‘stock clichéd images’, where our ‘impression of Iraq and Iraqis is quite a militarised one, which doesn’t really capture the reality for most people.’

This misrepresentation of Iraq is not only limited to imagery, however. Just as the camera never lies, for many, neither do the numbers. Mona’s discomfort with ‘the almost religious faith placed in statistics’ stems from her own experiences working for the International Organisation of Migration’s Iraq mission. Based in Amman, Jordan at the time, she found that while it was easy to allocate needs according to the figures, there was a sense that ‘some of the nuance and the individuals behind those numbers’ were being lost. ‘That’s what this exhibition is trying to achieve.’

The resulting exhibition is a novel attempt to reintegrate the human subject with the figures that claim to represent them. Taken in a variety of locations throughout Iraq since 2012, with the majority as recently as February 2013, they range from the delightfully simple to the fiendishly complex. This is understandable from an exhibition which aims at using photographs as a ‘new form of infographic’ – even if, as she readily concedes, these ‘typically take some effort on the part of the viewer’. Initially conceived of as a series of ‘really traditional’ forms of statistical representation – the bar, pie and scatter charts of school – the limitations of this quickly became clear, causing a shift towards new types of data maps. This move is perhaps best shown by My Number (see image), where a shop-keeper is shown writing down the rise in internet access on a receipt, which has proved one of the most popular works in the exhibition. Why? Because ‘it’s been so easy for [the audience] to understand!’ she laughs.

Yet it is wrong to suggest that the statistics always sit uneasily with the imagery. Indeed, one of Mona’s main aims is to highlight the very limitations of statistical and photographic data; namely, the impossibility of putting ‘everything into one particular image’. Rather than creating ‘pure facts’, the intention is precisely the opposite; to ‘raise the question of what you can see and what’s actually there’. What’s missing is often at least as significant as what is there; perhaps especially so in Iraq, where under Saddam giving information to a foreign source was a treasonous offence, and where one of the keys to understanding Iraq is that ‘the climate of fear is not the same, and that’s really hard to put down in numbers. You just can’t capture that.’

The importance of the viewer’s own perceptions is also raised by Abu Stitch (see image), which depicts attitudes towards domestic violence based on the responses of Iraqi women. When I asked whether this could fit into the narrative of Islam oppressing women’s rights which is sometimes raised by its critics, her response was firm: ‘I’m not comfortable with the idea of Islam repressing women at all. There are so many misperceptions regarding the state of women in the Muslim world.’ All the same, she ‘wouldn’t want to be a woman in Iraq’, mainly because ‘I’m so used to being a woman in Britain. it’s hard for me to recognise the advantages of being a woman [there].’

If ‘Photographs by Numbers’ is concerned with the limitations of traditional forms of representation, this personal element is always also present. The daughter of Iraqi emigrants who was born in Britain, Mona, while acknowledging that ‘it’s a choice [for her] to be there’, summarises her own experiences there as ‘feeling really, really powerless. It’s quite different to British society, where you often try to strive as an individual. I find it very difficult on a personal level to be so dependent on the people around me.’ Her encounters with the ‘totally debilitating. Kafkaesque’ bureaucratic processes – at one point, staff even asked her mother if she was ‘retarded’, simply because she ‘kept on going to sign stuff and forgetting you need to give your thumbprint’ – only emphasised the difficulties in understanding other culture’s norms; a point she feels is often lost on Western statisticians.

In this way, each photograph seeks to raise questions on the limits of comprehension of the immediate image. In Patience (see image), a snapshot of Mona’s documents being considered is repeated a ‘messy’ 51 times, to show ‘how often you actually have to go through this. on average’. Depth and change is used in Winning Bread to illustrate the ‘huge limitations’ of using employment data in an economy where the black market is so great. Written in Cairo, Printed in Beirut, Read in Baghdad combines an image of al-Mutanabbi Street, the historic book-selling quarter, with literacy rates to evoke the ‘romanticism of a bygone time’ – which, significantly, she feels is not limited to foreign ideas of Iraq’s past, but is in fact most common to those still in Iraq, Sunni and Shia alike. Even The Gone and the Going, which ostensibly highlights the huge outflow of migrants from Iraq, the absence of UN estimates on Syrian refugees is effectively used to show the trade-off ‘between having accurate numbers. and nothing at all’.

Photographs by Numbers‘ is a highly innovative exhibition which is at its most successful when showing the human face that can get lost within the margins of error. Perhaps fittingly, a similar project may soon follow with a photographer in Syria, shedding light on the on-going humanitarian disaster there. Until then, Mona remains coy on her future projects. ‘We’ll see,’ she smiles, ‘we’ll see.’

Mona Chalabi was interview by Leon Kuebler on 26/03/2013 at the Arab-British Centre.

Asfar would like to take this opportunity to thank both Mona for the interview and the Arab-British Centre, allowing us to hold the interview there.

‘Photographs by Numbers’ was held as part of the Reel Iraq Festival at the Arab-British Centre, 22-28 March 2013.

You can follow Mona Chalabi’s Guardian Data Blog here.

1. My Number.
2. Abu Stitch.
3. Patience.

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All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)