Could you live someone else’s life?

At school my favourite part of geography class was about people living in far off lands.

Savannah, tundra, tropical rain forest, desert… not just places from films, stories, myths. These were real places, where real people lived.

Mileva Vesilnov family, Bulgaria

Growing up, Ireland was the centre of my world. It was all I knew.

Hot climates? Arid conditions? Desert? Metropolitan cities? High altitude countries?

Anywhere else seemed to be an extraordinary and somewhat ‘alien’ environment.

People living in flat-roofed houses, wooden houses, tents, houses made from mud?

I discovered there are people who inhabit this earth who live life in a different track from me. There are other ways of living.

Dollar Street   is a free educational resource  that I just wish had been around when I was at school.

Established by Anna Rosling Rönnlund at Gapminder, Dollar Street  looks closely at families and homes from around the world.

To date they have visited 264 families in 50 countries.

Each family is assigned a nominal US$ to reflect overall monthly income. How this translates into an actual home environment is staggering.

But what is also clear is: education, health, well-paid work and a sustainable, safe political and economic infrastructure is what makes the difference to people’s lives.

Win Ning Won Family, Myanmar

This is not some sort of  interior design coffee-table book purporting to reflect how people live. It does not feature celebrities or designer homes.  Its focus is on ordinary families and their homes.

These are the homes they have made their own. Spaces that reflect local economics, design and cultural practices, but also circumstance, choice and opportunity  – or the lack of it.

Every one of these stories  is an eye-opener.

In some homes the people are as poor as it is possible to be.

Others live in substantial, comfortable homes with all mod-cons. Or, at least a bed, separate rooms, TV, bathroom – all the things we might expect to see and have in a home.

There are things we might assume every family home cannot do without. Yet, clearly they do. Basically, that is because they have no choice.

When it comes to consumption there is a huge gap between… wanting, having, making do, doing without… never having had and never expecting ever to have.

For me, that’s what resonates most.

Gacotera family, Phillippines

Dollar Street looks at the things we use and how/where these occur in the home- or not.

It explores what is means to live with a daily  routine.

Beyond bathing, eating, sleeping it is about what people use for washing their teeth, washing clothes, storing foodstuff, entertainment, work and their treasured belongings.

It comes right down to the basics: light sources, power sockets, crockery, utensils and wall finishes. It attempts to compare like for like.

In reality some families have so little,  it comes down to comparing ‘something’ to – ‘nothing’.

We are used to seeing images of beautiful homes that  inspire  and amaze us. Sometimes, as a result these images can create a sense of discontent, dissatisfaction and envy. We might feel we are missing out. Or, that in some way our lives and our homes don’t match up.

A perfect home built with the luxury of space and  designed to suit our every need from the finest quality materials may be an aspiration, but it is not the norm.

Dollar Street is the very opposite of all that.  

These are real lived-in homes. They are not designed as show houses.

Neither are the images staged, manipulated or noticeably re-touched. 

This is the reality of those who have, and those who have only very little. And yet the families are comfortable that we see their home as it is.

For me, this is what makes it authentic and fascinating. But also… unsettling.

And deeply humbling.

Butoyi Family, Burundi

You can’t really pick out one family or one home above others.

The poorest family? Most comfortable home? Best use of space?

It’s not about that.

This is not a site that judges or comments. It simply shows the family and the home and we are left to make up our own minds about each way of life.

It is informative and it makes you think. Above all, it makes you confront your own sense of what is important, and what is not.

The website works best when  viewed  as a whole.

The images draw you in.

They tell a simple story about a family, a home, country, culture and way of life. It looks for commonality rather than differences.

We all have as much right to live on this earth as anyone else yet this shows us that some  people are forced to live in circumstances unimaginable to most.

There is nothing exotic about living in absolute poverty; it is a frightening and degrading existence.

Qors Family, Jordan

Right across the world technology is now part of people’s lives. It shows up everywhere.

In some places a mobile phone can be more of a lifeline than a luxury. A refrigerator is a precious, essential thing, rather than just kitchen appliance. TV’s provide entertainment and information but also widen perspectives and connect people.

A washing machine… a shower…computer…cooker.. lavatory…sofa.. running water…

All these items that were once upon a time from a  ‘dream modern lifestyle’ are now basic, everyday, taken-for-granted. But not everywhere.

We can never see a foreign country as local people do.

While we  may travel to different countries our experience of that place is always  going to be superficial and  sanitised. A snapshot – rather than a lived experience of place and space.

Dollar Street enables us to access hidden, private spaces. It is a remarkable insight into the homes and lives of other people with whom we share this earth.

Data and research such as this is what helps to  make the world a smaller, more human-centred place. 

It is almost like being there in person.

Nuala Rooney

All images copyright of Dollar Street.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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