What do the contents of our medicine cabinets say about our lives?

The medicines we keep reveal our struggles and aspirations. A photo project asked people around the world to bare their intimate health secrets.

By Daniel Stone
photographs by Gabriele Galimberti
Published 24 Jan 2019, 09:16 GMT, Updated 20 May 2021, 09:47 BST

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.

Wholl-Lins Balthazar (left), pictured with her mother-in-law and cousin, relies on traditional Haitian medicine, mainly plants from local markets or from a leaf doctor, known as a medsen fey.

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.

Susan Fischer, a yoga teacher, uses only homeopathic remedies, including plant extracts.
“Home Pharma” is a spin-off of a larger project, called “Happy Pills,” by Paolo Woods, Gabriele Galimberti, Arnaud Robert, and Edoardo Delille.
This story appeared in the January 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine – a Global Health special issue. 

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