EU elections, in which citizens of European Union countries vote for their representatives in the European Parliament, don't tend to command the same attention as national elections. But two groups, EUnited and Vote Together, are trying to change that ahead of this week's vote, which takes place between May 23 and May 26.
EUnited is a poster campaign dedicated to encouraging youth participation in the election. Declaring themselves non-political and independent, the group has tapped rising photographers such as David Uzochukwu, Maria Sturm, and Wendy Huynh for posters designed to motivate people to get out and vote.
“I started this project in February when I heard that the last voter turnout in the 2014 elections was 28 percent in the age category 18 to 24. The next age group didn’t look more promising either,” explains EUnited founder Clara Nebeling. “You could see it clearly in the numbers that the older generations make more use of their right to vote, which is ironic because our future will be impacted longer, yet we don’t take part in the process to shape it.”
Political posters usually follow the same bland template, but EUnited’s posters look more like pop art. From Uzochukwu’s semi-surreal images of women on bulls and Huynh’s documentation of Parisian youth to Sturm’s cross-cultural still lifes, everything about the images is made to grab your attention.
“We take pictures in an advertising context all the time, to promote the next new shoe for example, so why not promote the elections the same way?” Nebeling asks.
Nebeling is a photographer herself and explains that to make the campaign successful, people have to want to share the images, which can be downloaded directly from the EUnited site. “The project is open source, so every brand, magazine, shop, or talent can use it to promote the youth vote," she says. "Every person in Europe is able to print it out and put it up at their local bus stop.”
Similarly, Vote Together is creating imagery meant to sear the election dates into people’s minds. Part of Wolfgang Tillmans’ Between Bridges foundation and following in the footsteps of his memorable anti-Brexit campaign, Vote Together has created a series of posters and T-shirts bearing the election dates and statements such as "Vote together. Vote for Europe." in each of the EU's 24 official languages.
Elsewhere, Tillmans and fashion photographer Nick Knight have produced a series of posters reminding us "There is more that connects us than divides us."
“The idea was to focus on togetherness and to foster a sense of joy in connection with the elections, and celebrate them as a moment where we can come together and say yes to European collaboration,” Shahin Zarinbal, a fellow Vote Together organizer, explains.
EU parliamentary elections are held every five years but this has been the first time there has been such a grassroots push for EU election participation. Why now? Like a lot of things, it comes down to the triple threat of Trump, Brexit, and the spread of far-right populism across Europe and beyond.
Right-wing populist parties have made major inroads in most EU states and are hoping to capitalize on public apathy and antipathy toward the EU and its institutions, pushing what was built as an integrative and collaborative project into something altogether more nationalist and inward-looking.
“Considering the given political climate, there is so much at stake this year," says Zarinbal. "Populist parties that want to undermine European cooperation are seeking to turn the traditionally low voter turnout into major gains for themselves, using dated nationalist ideas and disinformation strategies.
“Living in a democracy, luckily, we have tools to resist those ideas and tendencies. We have the right to vote and thereby make a statement for a collaborative and peaceful Europe. The fact that there are many activists from civil society doing similar things shows that there is a real urgency to overcome passiveness.”
Promoting Europe has become a trend in the fashion world lately, with Études, Vetements, and Berlin brand Souvenir all selling some version of pro-EU merch. Both EUnited and Vote Together are slightly conflicted about what the trend means for EU politics, although any way of getting the youngest generation of voters interested in a united Europe is seen as a net positive.
"It definitely shows that there is a post-’89 generation which — without having grown up with the immediate experience of a divided Europe — seems to feel a need to articulate that they want a peaceful and collaborative Europe," Zarinbal says. "So there has been a shift with regards to the fact that people don’t shy away from demonstrating they care about the EU.”
Politics can feel overwhelming at times, these days especially, and EU politics can seem remote, but Vote Together and EUnited want to remind us that our votes do matter, and that the direction of the EU is in our hands — so go vote.