This story appears in the January 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Whenever photographer Gabriele Galimberti meets people on his travels, he asks the same question: Can I see what’s in your medicine cabinet? Some are shy; others proud to do so. “The medicines reveal who the people are,” says Galimberti. “Their desires, their wants, their diseases. It’s very intimate.”
What can our medicines say about us? For one, how affluent we are. Cabinets in developed countries tend to overflow with pharmaceuticals. People in less developed countries collect medications more slowly or not at all. A Haitian woman had not a single pill in the house: “If I get sick, I’ll buy a pill from the street vendor,” she said.
The medicine cabinet series, “Home Pharma,” is part of a larger ongoing project, called “Happy Pills,” in which Galimberti and three colleagues document humans’ never-ending pursuit of happiness through chemistry. People take pills to be stronger, to sleep more (or sometimes less), to age more slowly, to be more virile, to promote pregnancy, or to prevent it. The reasons people buy medicines—and hoard them—are just as plentiful: because they’re cheap or because more advanced medical care isn’t cheap, because we’re anxious about being unprepared, or because we were once prescribed them and don’t know how to dispose of the rest.
View the different cabinets’ contents, and cultures start to take shape. In Paris and New York, Galimberti saw large numbers of antidepressants and antianxiety pills. Indian people tended to choose medicines with Indian labels, independent of quality or potency. African cabinets had drugs from China, often unlabeled. Yet all the people photographed had something in common: None of them were sick.
“Home Pharma” is a spin-off of a larger project, called “Happy Pills,” by Paolo Woods, Gabriele Galimberti, Arnaud Robert, and Edoardo Delille.