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See The Story Of Income Inequality In Photos Of People’s Household Possessions

Toothbrushes, nice shoes, kids toys: When you see the difference in how families around the world live with their objects, you see global poverty in a new light.

What’s it like to live on $10 a week? Or $100, or $1,000? A new photo collection makes the answer less abstract than usual: Instead of focusing on data, it tells the story of income inequality through everyday objects.

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Take a toothbrush. Ask someone living on a dollar or two a day in rural India how they brush their teeth, and they might hold up a finger. Others might use a twig. For those with a little more money, a family might share one old toothbrush. At the other end of the spectrum, every family member might have an electric toothbrush–maybe even in their own bathroom.

It’s a simple way to imagine living a completely different life. A new website called Dollar Street, set to launch early in 2016, lays out homes from around the world in a series–poorest on the left, richest on right–and then shows what’s inside each house, from shoes to dish racks to toys.

“The current way of communicating poverty, which is very often kids crying or ‘catastrophe imagery,’ sort of implies a moral standard,” says Anna Rosling-Rönnlund, project manager for Dollar Street. “When you see it you know you’re supposed to act in some way–donate some money or change how you eat or something. I felt that it was a way of communicating that excludes the pure understanding of something. You have these moral layers on it which I think makes it harder for many people to really understand what the world is like.”

Rosling-Rönnlund, who trained as a photographer, first started thinking about the idea as a co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, which uses graphic charts to present data about the world. “A lot of people are still hesitant to look at statistics,” she says. “A colorful chart is still a chart.”

A chart also can’t tell the same story as a photograph. “I remember looking at one of the household surveys that World Bank produced, and it was saying this many people in an age group have an ‘improved pit latrine,'” she says. “I started thinking, I understand the numbers, but do I really know what a pit latrine is? Being a photographer, I thought, why not take a picture of it instead?”

So far, the project has photographed the objects in over 200 homes, in 48 countries. Each photographer aims to capture 135 different items. “We wanted to have everyday functions everybody does,” Rosling-Rönnlund says. Like a stove–it doesn’t matter what income you have, somehow you’re going to prepare food in some way. And a toilet, and shower, and soap, and the bed.”

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Most of the photos don’t include people, so it’s easier for the viewer to imagine actually using the objects themselves. “Every time you see a home from a poor country, most often you see like the whole family standing in front of the house, and you get so distracted by seeing all those people it can be tricky to understand what life is really like for them,” she says.

Eventually, she hopes that the site will become a standard tool in classrooms. “The whole idea is to moderate a baseline imagery that can work in parallel with a world map, being a reference so that you understand what the world looks like on a broad scale,” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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