Paolo Woods & Arnaud Robert パオロ・ウッズ＆アルノー・ロベール
With the support of the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Embassy of Switzerland in Japan
The task of defining happiness has long been delegated to religion, philosophy, or even politics. Today this universal quest seems more and more to be the province of the pharmaceutical industry, which uses all of the tools of the modern age—science, marketing, communications technology—to offer everyone a standardized and automatic response to the ultimate human aspiration. More than ever, to be happy is a duty.
Running through our collective unconscious and pop culture, from Alice in Wonderland to The Matrix, is the leitmotif of the pill: a near-magical solution to difficulties, depression, and all the inadmissible limitations of our human condition. The promise of transformation and healing through chemistry offers a perfect metaphor for a Promethean society that believes only in efficiency, power, youth, and performance. A society where the appearance of happiness is better than happiness itself.
For five years, journalist Arnaud Robert and photographer Paolo Woods travelled the world in search of Happy Pills, those drugs that can repair invisible wounds; those substances that can make people take action, help them to work and to get it up; those formulations that allow the depressed to avoid total collapse; the painkillers that the working poor gobble down so that they can keep on feeding their families. Everywhere, from Niger to the United States, from Switzerland to India, from Israel to the Peruvian Amazon, pills offer immediate solutions where once there were only eternal problems.
The project exists in three different forms: a book, an exhibition, and a film.
Paolo Woods パオロ・ウッズ
Special Interview｜Paolo Woods
Feb. 23, 2023
(Interview and text by Nana Tazuke)
Working in collaboration
── Happy Pills is a long term project. How did you and Arnaud get to know each other?
Basically, all the projects I’ve done have been collaborative. I believe very strongly in collaboration. I have worked with a journalist from Switzerland, Serge Michel, for many years. At a certain moment I moved to Haiti and lived there for four years. In the meantime Serge became deputy editorial director of the Le Monde newspaper in Paris, so he could no longer travel with me, but he introduced me to Arnaud Robert, who is also a journalist, writer, and film director from Switzerland. Arnaud had lots of experience with Haiti. We got along very well and immediately started collaborating. Our first project was about Haiti, and we tried to approach this country from a very different perspective. The way Haiti is portrayed in texts and photographs is usually very stereotypical. Arnaud was looking for an artistic approach, and we found another way to tell the Haiti story.
── How did you start the project Happy Pills?
When I was finishing a big story with Gabriele Galimberti about the finance industry, called The Heavens, Arnaud was working on a story for Swiss radio about the development of medicines in high-tech Swiss laboratories. And so our interests crossed again. I wanted to do something about another industry that is central to people’s lives, such as the pharmaceutical industry. And Arnaud was very interested in telling the story through the consumers. So we started the project Happy Pills, which became a book, an exhibition, and a film. The result will be shown at KYOTOGRAPHIE.
── Can you tell me about the film?
The book, the film, the exhibition, and magazine articles are all aimed at different audiences and touch on different areas of the project. The film is very intimate. It is about six different consumers around the world. We tried to get as close to these people as possible and show what their daily lives are like and how much their pills are a part of their lives. In the book and exhibition you will learn a lot about the industry and social conditions in the different countries. We have filmed and photographed people in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, and in the United States, one of the richest countries.
── You said that the portrayals of the six people in the film are very intimate. How did they react when you came to film them?
One of the reasons this project took so long was that we had to find the right people and they had to accept us into their lives in such an intimate way. I think that’s one of the strengths of working with Arnaud Robert as a journalist. It took a lot of research. You enter a teenager’s room in Massachusetts at 6 a.m. when she is still asleep. You go to a wild gay party in Tel Aviv. You follow someone until the moment they die. Those are extremely intimate moments. We really felt that it was necessary for us to get this close.
Dream comes true – beyond the limits of being human
── Tell us more about your exhibition at KYOTOGRAPHIE. What will it be like? I have a feeling that there will be a lot of information in it.
Since the first exhibition of the project at La Ferme Des Tilleuls in Switzerland, Arnaud and I have been working together with the curator François Hébel, former director of the Arles Photo Festival and Magnum Photos, who is now director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson. We thought a lot about how to adapt the project to different spaces. The exhibition is now on tour and will also come to Kyoto. We want to give visitors the opportunity to take a journey through our project. The whole idea of Happy Pills is like a big puzzle. We hope that visitors will be able to see the different pieces of the puzzle in the exhibition and in the end see the puzzle as one big picture, which is about us as consumers.
── So, the puzzle is about us?
The purpose of pills is healing. But many pills which are sold and consumed today are not for healing from a disease. They are for healing “from ourselves,” from being humans. Because being human means being limited. Since humans have existed, we have always aspired to go beyond our limits. The main limit, of course, is that we die, but we have lots of other limits as well. To try to go beyond these, humans have used religion, philosophy, or ideologies. Now people also use pills, because pills allow them to do things that they were not able to do before. But this is something that has always been part of our nature as humans. If you look at literature, you will find many stories about a magic powder to get a person to fall in love with you, a magic oil which will make you invisible. Much of literature, and I imagine Japanese literature as well, is full of these stories about something that will transform you. Alice in Wonderland, a book by Lewis Carroll, is referenced in The Matrix: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” And now we have an industry that enables us transform ourselves like that. We photographed people with all the medicines they have in their house. It shows how much we depend on chemistry. Near Chicago we also photographed the production of the most expensive medicine in the world: it costs 2.1 million dollars a dose and it changes your DNA. This was science fiction a few years ago, and now it exists. We are trying to show all these different elements, which then make up our chemical desires.
── A frightening effect from a pill.
In fact it is incredible. A revolution is happening in the pharmaceutical industry, and our relationship with it is enormous. That’s why we wanted to do this story. It is also interesting because the pharmaceutical industry is an extremely modern industry, in the sense that it combines the most advanced research with marketing. The two together, for good and bad, make it extremely important as an industry.
Taking pills is not the same as caring for your health
── You show venders walking the streets of Haiti with towers of pills. People in Haiti can buy medicines as a single pill and not necessarly in blister packs. On the other hand, in the US there are many poor people who don’t have insurance and can’t buy medicines. How did we get into this situation?
First of all, the pharmaceutical industry arrived in the poorest countries faster than many other industries did. It doesn’t have to be the best pill or the pill that actually cures. In Niger, for example, people are still dying from malaria, a disease that is preventable. When we went there, young people were taking very strong painkillers called Tramadol. These pills are promoted by the industry, which produces them mainly in China and India. We visited a small village in Niger, where there is no electricity, no running water, not even a telephone signal, but you could still find blister packs of painkillers. On the one hand, there’s no access to health care if you have diabetes; and extremely strong opioids (painkillers) are sold on every street corner. And a large part of the population is addicted to these opioids.
This is the case in America with OxyContin. The pills are accessible everywhere in the world. Health care is not. In Haiti, people don’t have access to doctors, or good-quality hospitals, but they have access to pills. The people selling them often don’t even know what they are selling. Some pills are expired, some are fake, some might be wrong for your illness. Although the pharmaceutical industry is globalised, access to health is not globalised at all.
── That means we are quite dependent on medicines.
Yes. Even in developed countries, people don’t need to rest when they are tired from work, they can find a pill that keeps them going. So, it’s the idea of super capitalism: push more, more, more. There is a very high consumption of drugs, not to cure illness, but to turn off pain. And that is something that was very interesting to us.
── But medicines can also give people more freedom.
Exactly. We once did a story about contraceptive pills in Peru. In the Amazon region 25% of girls have their baby before they are 18. There is a real stigma in Peruvian society towards women taking their reproductive rights into their own hands. It’s a very patriarchal society. Now there are young women who realise that they will be much freer if they take control of themselves and their bodies. In that case, a pill is a liberating revolution. We also did a story on PrEP, a medicine you can take to avoid contracting HIV. This is a medicine for unprotected relationships. That is also a revolution. We could have done these stories in any number of different countries. I am sure there are lots of very important stories in Japan. It is interesting to see how chemistry and pills are affecting people’s lives, even in places where we wouldn’t have expected it.
Where is your own limit?
── I am sure that KYOTOGRAPHIE will be a place where visitors will ask you a lot of questions. I would like to ask what you think about the problems your exhibition addresses.
We are living in a capitalist society. The basis of capitalism is “supply and demand.” It’s the same with pills: there is very good and improving supply from the pharmaceutical industry and there is strong demand from us as comsumers. When people talk about the pharmaceutical industry, they usually immediately take one side or the other: good or bad. But the story that Arnaud and I tell is not about whether the pharmaceutical industry is good or bad. It is about our own relationship with this industry. If my mother gets sick and the pharmaceutical industry saves her, I love this industry. If my brother is addicted to OxyContin, a legal medicine made in North America, and dies from an overdose, I hate this industry. So, for me, it is more than a “good” or “bad” rating. It is more about when and where I, as a human being, say: “I am limited.”
── Obviously you are familiar with and take up many social issues around the world. I would like to ask you what you think about today’s society.
Well, I don’t know many societies other than the one I live in. I would say that almost all of my work is about decyripting capitalism. I’m interested in exploring how the destructive aspects of capitalism can somehow be limited. This is something that is very important for me. All my life, I have seen countries getting weaker and companies getting stronger. That is one thing. The other thing is love. I can’t think of anything that is more important than love. And fortunately, they still haven’t found a love pill. So, I can’t take a pill and fall in love just like that.
── Do you have a message for visitors to Kyotographie?
Well, first of all, “Welcome!” I am very much looking forward to being part of this festival. I hope that visitors won’t see “exclamation marks” in our exhibition, but “question marks.” I hope they will ask “Huh?” and not say “Wow!” I like it when people question themselves.
Paolo Woods was born in The Hague, the Netherlands, of Dutch and Canadian parentage. He grew up in Italy, has lived in London, Paris, Haiti, and Ivory Coast, and is now based in Florence. He ran a photo gallery and a laboratory before dedicating himself to documentary photography. He is devoted to long-term projects that blend photography with research. Woods is the author of eight books, and his projects are regularly featured in major international publications such as the New York Times, Le Monde, and the Guardian. He has done solo exhibitions in France, the US, Italy, Switzerland, China, Spain, Germany, Holland, and Haiti, and participated in numerous group shows around the world. His works are held in private and public collections, including the Musee de l’Elysée, Unipol, the French National Library, the FNAC, the Sheik Saud Al-Thani collection, and the Servais collection. He has received various prizes, including two World Press Photo awards. He is co-founder of RIVERBOOM, a collective and publishing house that explores the limits of the photographic language. In 2022, Woods was appointed artistic director of Cortona On The Move, Italy’s main international photography festival, for which he curated the 2022 edition titled “Me, Myself and Eye.”
Arnaud Robert アルノー・ロベール
Arnaud Robert, born in 1976, is a Swiss journalist, director, and writer. His work has been published in Le Monde, Le Temps, La Repubblica, Néon, Les Inrockuptibles, Vibrations, and many other international outlets. He is a regular contributor to Swiss public broadcaster Radio Télévision Suisse. He has directed three documentaries, Bamako is a Miracle, Bondyé Bon, and Gangbé!. His films have been awarded prizes at the Vues d’Afrique festival in Montreal and the Jean Rouch Festival in Paris. He is also the author of several books, including Hors-Bord, a series of seven volumes co-authored with the painter Frédéric Clot; STATE, with Paolo Woods; and Journal d’un Blanc, a compilation of his columns in the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. He is one of the creators of the exhibition Vodou, Un Art de Vivre, created at the Museum of Ethnography in Geneva and subsequently presented in ten countries. He was awarded the Le Prix Jean Dumur, the Prix des Radios Francophones Publiques, and, in 2020, the Swiss Press Award for his investigation into the toilet revolution.
François Hébel フランソワ・エベル
Born in 1958. Hébel is a producer and curator of more than 1000 exhibitions, books, educational initiatives, slide and live shows on the five continents, and worked with photographers for 42 years. He was an early collaborator of now major artists such as Martin Parr, Nan Goldin, JR, Robert Doisneau, Wang Qingsong, Paul Graham, Raymond Depardon, Annie Leibovitz, Sebastiao Salgado, Harry Gruyaert, Alfredo Jaar, Zanele Muholi, Henri Cartier-Bresson and more, and has made many initiatives at early stages of digital photography. Hébel was the Director at Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2017–2022), Initiator and art director of the first Month of Photography of the Grand Paris (April 2017), art director / co-founder of the Biennale Foto/Industria in Bologna, Italy (2013, 2015, 2017) and art director of ‘French Protocol’ program at FIAF Gallery, New-York (2015–2018). He is also the former director of The Rencontres d’Arles (1986, 1987 and 2001–2014), co-founder or advisor of photo festivals in Beijing (2010/2013) and New-Delhi (2010, 2011), former vice-president of Corbis Photo Agency (2000–2001), former director of Magnum Photos Paris and International (1987–2000), and former director of FNAC Stores galleries (1983–1985). Administrator of Retail and Connexions (a French Railways SNCF subsidiary).
Kurochiku Makura Building 2F
Artist Talk: Paolo Woods X François Hébel “Happy Pills”
Defining Your Project: A masterclass with Paolo Woods