A red pill or a blue pill? They come in all colors and sizes, and the book Happy Pills taps into a torrent of drugs designed to cure erectile dysfunction, insomnia, and old age, promising bliss or oblivion. The photographer Paolo Woods and the journalist Arnaud Robert spent five years exploring the world of drugs with only one question in mind: “Does happiness come in a bottle?”.
Soma, the drug in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, which the author called “Christianity without tears” and which “give[s] you a holiday from the facts,” is no longer fiction. There is now a drug for every ailment, every anxiety, every disorder. Statistically, you will have 1000mg Doliprane even before you even finish this article. Over twenty years, the pharmaceutical industry’s turnover has tripled from 390 billion in 2001 to 1,250 billion in 2019, which is 3.5 times the turnover of the 25 largest weapons manufacturers. This concerns us all—including the authors of the book. Not without irony, Arnaud Robert and Paolo Woods enumerate the tablets they swallow daily: the former to relieve his ankylosing spondylitis, the latter for his gastroduodenal ulcer.
The authors’ investigation of miracle candy began in Haiti, with an unusual street display in Port-au-Prince. “We saw this column, this towering stall,” they recount. Along dusty roads, medicines are sold not in blister packs, but by the pill, and they are piled high on pill peddlers’ heads like leaning towers of Pisa made of meds. “This has become an obsession for us: looking for the most beautiful assortment. Always the same structure: a bucket as the base, then cardboard boxes stacked up into an inverted obelisk supporting an arrangement of pills held with rubber bands. At the top, the instructions for use are randomly thrown in.” But where are pharmacies? There are some: a mere 170 for a population of eleven million. Street vendors become street doctors. “It’s the Matrix at every crossroads. The blue pill and you get better. The red pill and you perish,” writes the reporter. Paolo Woods poses these prescription drug vendors with their plastic buckets sprouting rainbows of pills. The terrible aesthetics of retail.
A journey through the world of meds
From Tel Aviv to the green valleys of Switzerland, by way of the United States, Niger, and France, Paolo Woods and Arnaud Robert conducted a global investigation in ten chapters, pill after pill, one consumer at a time. How many drugs do we keep in our cupboards? 50% of the world’s population consumed at least one drug per day in 2020. The series « Home Pharma », included in the book, is the work of Gabriele Galimberti, who is used to striking scenes staged in private homes. One might recall his incredible series on gun ownership in the United States or children’s toys around the world. Here, he went door to door with the ritual question “Could you pull out all your meds?”. The table is covered with cardboard boxes, carefully aligned capsules with names ending in “ax,” “mil,” and “cta”…: the living room of a retired couple in Switzerland, a beach picnic in Costa Rica, the rug at an Indian family’s home… “The medicine chest is a biography of ailments, a strange archive of past afflictions,” writes Arnaud Robert. Some people have a tidal wave of pills spilling from their cupboards, while others four miserly bottles—proof of the inequality of access to care. According to figures, 25% of the world’s population don’t have access to basic medications.
The reporters pressed on to look at Adderall, a miracle pill said to cure attention deficit disorder in American youth—literally, a prescription for success. They also met a young Amerindian woman, Yurica, from the Peruvian Amazon, who gets injected with a contraceptive to avoid another unwanted pregnancy. She had her first child at 16. “Here the men bear no responsibility. I was pregnant with my fourth child and the father had already knocked up another woman. He left us both,” she recounts. Then there is Maris, in Tel Aviv, who takes a pill a day against HIV. Next there is a portrait of Indian bodybuilders flexing their muscles in a building under construction, next to a debris chute… Pumped full of steroids and hormones, their veins ready to pop, in a country where self-discipline rules. This series of black-and-white portraits is almost frightening with the bodies disproportionate to the heads of the competitors with fake smiles.
A two-million-dollar pill
Like the bodybuilders, Roy Dolce also uses products to perfect his body. But his miracle pill is blue: Viagra. Four billion of these are sold every year. “I know I’ll deliver,” says the 43-year-old Italian, who poses sitting in a hotel room, in front of an Eastern European woman lying naked on the bed. “We knew, as soon as the phrase ‘Happy Pill’ came to mind, that Viagra would perhaps be the purest form of a drug that encapsulates both the immense promise and the illusions of a miracle pill,” write the journalists.
The book’s journey ends with two touching portraits. The first is of Louis Bériot, a former French journalist who decided to go to Switzerland to have an assisted suicide, following a bout with an incurable cancer. The authors follow him on his last journey. The second is an encounter with Ginger and Fred, a couple consumed by addiction to Fentanyl, a painkiller one hundred times more powerful than morphine. Huddled under an elevated railway bridge in Chicago, they tell the story of their descent into hell: “The minute I put the fucking patch on, I was hooked. Fred spiraled down with me. In a few months, we lost everything: our jobs, our car, our house, and our two children whom we had to give up for adoption.”
Their investigation brought Arnaud Robert and Paolo Woods to chase down drug hypes, with meds such as Zolgensma, the world’s most expensive remedy for rare diseases in newborns, a 2.1 million-dollar treatment. They have created a mosaic of portraits, with eye-popping statistics and a wide variety of photographs. Happy Pills is an intimate mirror to our dependence on drugs, a dizzying dive into human quest for happiness in a pill. A pipe dream.
By Michaël Naulin
Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked in regional and national newspapers, he is above all passionate about photography and more particularly reporting.
Happy Pills, Delpire & Co, 264 pp, €39.
“Happy Pills” exhibition at La Ferme des Tilleuls in Renens, near Lausanne, Switzerland, until January 16, 2022.