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f³ – freiraum für fotografie : Paolo Woods & Arnaud Robert : Happy Pills


The photographic investigation “Happy Pills” takes up residence in Berlin. The authors, photographer Paolo Woods and journalist Arnaud Robert, have traveled the four corners of the planet for five years to question this very special relationship that we humans have with drugs. So, is happiness in the pill?

They make one more powerful, more efficient, they alleviate the pain and soften the pain, they promise life but also death. Drugs are everywhere. Almost every home in this world dedicates a little space to these pills that cure our ailments and sometimes create others. With this dense project which is illustrated in three parts – a photographic series, a book and a documentary freshly released this year, Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert map the symptoms of a sick world. 

“Can you show us your pills?”

An antibiotic, a cough syrup and an anti-lice shampoo: here are the few remedies that this Haitian family with four children has. If the father would however like the contraceptive pill to lengthen the list, for his wife, it is out of the question: it would go against the will of God, the pastor of his Protestant church forbids him.

With always the same staging, several households were invited to reveal their medicine chest. The photographs taken by photographer Gabriele Galimberti show how the drugs we possess are a whole part of our intimacy, they reflect our trials and reveal our fears. Like this Swiss couple in their beautiful apartment in Lausanne, displaying a large collection of pills in front of them. Advil, Voltaren, Maxilase, Nurofen… names that resonate like the slogans of our time.

And others opt for nature, by culture, like this other Haitian family who treat themselves exclusively with plants, or else like this Lithuanian couple who make their own magic potions based on essential oils and medicinal herbs from the garden.

Evils of the century

These polished images introduce a succession of mini-reports of heterogeneous portraits illustrating all the diversity of the use of drugs throughout the world, according to country, gender or even social category. These little colored pills then become the mirror of inequalities and the interdependence that resides between health and capitalism.

A first portrait takes us to Peru with Yurika, a 27-year-old mother with four children from three different fathers. Although the Church spreads mistrust of contraceptives, she opted for a monthly injection, to protect herself from the irresponsibility of the men of her country. Surely one of the reasons why in Peru, one in four women has a child before the age of 18.

If the United States is notorious for addiction to opioids, another evil ravages the superpower: attention disorders. 10% of young Americans are diagnosed with ADHD and three quarters are given daily chemical treatment. This is the case of Addy, 15, whose parents, worried about their school failure in their adolescence, financed a battery of tests to detect the famous cognitive disorder. His daily life now rhymes with Adderall.

And there is the story of journalist and television producer Louis Bériot who, after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, sets out to find eternal rest in Switzerland. A poignant testimony with gentle and respectful images of Paolo Woods that evoke the road to death as the ultimate quest for happiness that a single dose of phenobarbital will enabled him to achieve.

We also discover Roy, an Italian gigolo infused with Viagra to never fail during his performances; or the bodybuilders in India addicted to steroids which inflate biceps and paradoxically, which, in the long term, reduce the size of the testicles and can cause prostate cancer – there is something deeply ironic about the search for excessive masculinity . And finally, in Tel Aviv, the gay community seems to have found the cure for condoms thanks to PrEP (Pre‐Exposure Prophylaxis). Originally used in triple therapy to treat AIDS, this strategy of continuously taking an antiretroviral drug would have the broader power to prevent any infection.

From these images that flirt with the absurd, emerges a dystopian content that is nevertheless very real. Paolo Woods declares that he is attracted by subjects of “non-photogenic” appearance, but they have managed, with Arnaud Robert, to breathe a unique aesthetic into this immense societal subject. Between mass medication and the medication diverted from its primary use, our society seems to survive on the strength of its pills, as this street vendor in Haiti so aptly puts it: “To each problem, its own pill.”

Noémie de Bellaigue 


“Happy Pills” at f³ – freiraum für fotografie until June 25, 2023.

f³ – freiraum für photography
Waldemarstrasse 17
10179 Berlin

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