How Right-wing versus Cosmopolitan Political Actors Mobilize and Translate Images of
Immigrants in Transnational Contexts1
Draft, paper to appear in Visual Communication
This article is interested in visual posters and symbols constructed and circulated transnationally
by various political actors to mobilize public debate on the issues of immigration and citizenship
in Western Europe. Following right-wing mobilizations on the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis
in relation to fears of terrorist threat, immigration has become one of the most contentious
political issues in both Europe and the United States (Caiani et al. 2012; McAdam and Kloos
2014). Images of immigrants have been recently used in the case of Brexit and in national
referendum campaigns in different European Union member states to construct and legitimate an
ethno-nationalist and homogeneous representation of citizenship and national identity that
demeans and marginalizes minorities, Muslims, and immigrants (Kallis 2013; Wodak 2015). In
constructing a “politics of fear” (Wodak 2015), right wing populist political parties have used
provocative visual posters depicting immigrants as ‘criminal foreigners’ or ‘threat to the nation’,
in some countries and contexts conflating the image of the immigrant with that of the Islamist
terrorist (Betz 2013).
Research shows how right wing political parties and their extremist grassroots sympathizers build
increasingly deep and connected networks at the national and transnational levels, both in Europe
1 Draft version. This paper will appear in Visual Communication as part of the
forthcoming Special Issue “Mobilizing Images” edited by Maria Rovisco. For
comments contact me at email@example.com.
and in the US (Caiani et al. 2012). While numerous researchers have studied the national media
coverage of contentious immigration politics, fewer have explored how visual images facilitate
trans-national networking and mobilization by right wing and extremist political activists in
different countries (see for example, Betz 2013). In this perspective, we need more systematic
research on the trans-national dimension of contentious visual politics on immigration,
particularly given the use of stereotypes of the ‘terrorist’ or the ‘criminal foreigner’ by both
populist right political parties and extremist activists (Wodak 2015). As an example, in early 2016
the right wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) followed the German national media polemics
about acts of sexual violence during New Year’s eve in Cologne with a visual poster campaign
against “criminal foreigners” in Switzerland (Ritter 2016).
Right wing political groups are not the only ones mobilizing on the issue of immigration. Inspired
by left-wing and transnationalist ideas, progressive social movements have similarly created
transnational campaigns to benefit refugees and immigrants (Doerr 2010). There is a growing
field of research in social movement studies on the logic of “connective action” in which activists
use “digitally networked action” to share and carry personal stories and images across contexts
(Bennett and Segerberg 2013: 195-6). Because of their open ended, ambivalent characteristics,
images have the capacity to address different audiences (Müller et al 2009), and through this
condense the power of storytelling practices through social media and “affective publics”
fostering emotional connections across distance (Papacharissi 2015). This article will explore the
trans-national dynamics of visual mobilization by comparing the translation of right-wing,
nationalist with and left-wing, cosmopolitan visual campaigns on the issue of immigration in
Research on how varying radical images of immigrants shape broader public debates about
Europe and the EU is timely given the rising electoral impact of right-wing political parties and
the challenges this poses to liberal democracy and cosmopolitan ideas of citizenship in Europe
(Schmidt 2016). Following right wing political mobilizations on the issues of the refugee crisis
and the Brexit vote, anti-immigrant protests and images have become increasingly visible, while
cosmopolitan and left-wing inspired images of solidarity among citizens in different European
countries have received less coverage within mainstream media (Doerr and Mattoni 2014).
A case illustrating the transnational effectiveness of anti-immigration mobilization through visual
images is the SVP. Through a series of racist posters, the SVP over the past decade has increased
its outreach to mainstream voters and internationally. Professionally designed, the posters have
helped the SVP reach out to both populist right wing parties and more extremist right wing
political activists (Doerr forthcoming). As an example, the SVP in 2007 launched a series of
provocative “black sheep” posters created for its national election campaign. Their contentious
poster shows three white sheep standing on the Swiss flag as one of them kicks a single black
sheep away (see Illustration 1).
(Illustration 1 about here)
The poster in Illustration 1 was initially disseminated online via blogs and social networks in
Switzerland, where the SVP campaigned for “criminal” immigrants and foreigners living in
Switzerland to be deported after serving their sentences (Kallis 2013). The poster deeply
polarized public debates about immigration and citizenship in Switzerland and internationally.
While journalists from liberal newspapers in Switzerland, Europe, and the US attacked the
poster’s racist message (Bachmann 2007), SVP politicians officially denied any racist intention as
in a 2007 news interview of an SVP official who said: “The black sheep is not any black sheep
that doesn’t fit into the family. It’s the foreign criminal who doesn’t belong here, the one that
doesn’t obey Swiss law. We don’t want him” (Sciolino 2007:7). Wodak has conceptualized the
simultaneous use and denial of racist contents the “calculated ambivalence” within populist right
wing discursive strategies (Wodak 2013: 27). In contrast to the negative response by mainstream
media, institutional right wing political parties such as the Italian Lega Nord (LN) and the neo-
Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) in Germany translated the SVP poster into Italian and
German, creating their own black sheep posters for local or national campaigns.
The puzzle of different right wing political parties and their grassroots activists sharing and
translating anti-immigration posters is theoretically relevant, providing a contrast case to
transnational campaigns and connective action created by left-wing and progressive social
movements (Bennett and Segerberg 2013). To contrast with the case of the SVP, I will also
discuss the left-wing radical ‘EuroMayday’ protests. EuroMayday, a campaign centered on the
issues of social precarity and immigration, was innovative in its cross-national use of visual
media, online demonstrations and creative street parades (Mattoni 2012). Like other transnational
protest networks, EuroMayday experienced multiple linguistic and structural challenges trying to
translate the ideas of cosmopolitan and transnational citizenship and social rights across Europe
(Doerr and Mattoni 2014)). To address these issues, EuroMayday founders in Italy used their
members’ communicative skills as journalists and graphic designers to invent a highly visual
campaign of posters and visual symbols in order to target those living in European countries and
speaking different languages (Ibid).
Addressing the insecurity and socially precarious situations of workers and immigrants in
Europe, since 2004 EuroMayday has mobilized hundreds of thousands of citizens and immigrants
to participate in ‘untraditional’ street parades on May Day (Mattoni 2012). To overcome
linguistic barriers among its members, EuroMayday initiators in Italy consciously constructed a
visual language of social precarity (Doerr and Mattoni 2014). The EuroMayday protest campaign
and its political demands became most visible in European media and internationally in 2006 and
2007, around the same time as the SVP’s initial black sheep campaign. However, in contrast to
the SVP campaign, EuroMayday tried to create an effort to break stereotypical images of
immigrants in public media. The EuroMayday poster in Illustration 2 depicts two young figures
in front of an urban skyline, symbolizing the joint struggle of young Italians and (undocumented)
(Illustration 2 about here)
Designed and published online by EuroMayday Milan in 2008, this poster depicts a dynamic
central couple. The male figure is presented in a somewhat passive posture, arms crossed yet
smiling. The female figure, is a bit darker in hue, a subtle difference to be discussed later, as it
was important to the creators of the image. The poster portrays immigrants neither as black, male
stereotypes of ‘boat people’ invading ‘fortress Europe’, nor in terms of ‘victim images’ of
trafficked female immigrants (Falk 2010).
My research compares how right-wing and left-wing political actors appropriate visual campaign
materials by groups in other national contexts, and which language-based and visual practices of
translation they utilize. Wodak has shown how quickly and effectively historic fascist and
extreme right wing political movements and parties in Western Europe, drawing on German Nazi
ideology, diffused and translated each other’s symbols, songs, and political discourses (Wodak
2013). In light of the greater visibility of right wing anti-immigration politics, my research aims
to understand the differences in the translation practices used by left and right wing political
Pointing to a broader relevance of translation in social movement studies, researchers working on
transnational diffusion have recently suggested the need to study the linguistic difficulties in the
limits and processes of translation that are necessary when political meanings travel across
countries (Chabot 2010). Elsewhere, I have demonstrated how immigrants’ rights activists and
progressives have used the practice of political translation to democratize culturally diverse or
multilingual group settings and mainstream deliberation (Doerr 2012). Here, I take a restricted
focus on the intersemiotic practices of translation that are necessary when political activists
translate campaign posters or social media images to spread them in a different national and
political context. Intersemiotic translation is defined as the “interpretation of verbal signs by
means of nonverbal sign systems” (Jakobso 2000: 115). I will show that the left-wing
cosmopolitan EuroMayday groups who circulated and translated posters on the issues of social
precarity and immigration used a more complex and reflective visual design than the right wing
political groups who translated the SVP’s black sheep poster.
In my analysis, I consider the difficulties of defining the broad and multi-facetted sector of right-
wing political actors (Mudde 2007). Following a broad definition, I distinguish between right
wing populist parties versus more radical extremist activist networks and political parties (Mudde
2007). Wodak defines right wing populist parties based on their stigmatization of cultural,
religious, linguistic, or ethnic minorities as a “threat and scapegoat” for a wide variety of
different political problems (Wodak, 2013: 26-27). According to Wodak’s definition, right-wing
populist parties use a range of different discursive strategies including victim-perpetrator reversal
and scapegoating to instill fear that constructs a “border politics” between an exclusionary
majority “we-group identity” and a “dangerous”, threatening “Other” (Wodak, 2015:2, 4). Caiani
et al., define right wing “extremist” activist groups pointing to the broad variety of ideologies to
be included among these categories, from those espousing revisionist neo-Nazi ideas or neo-
fascist convictions to religious extremists of various denominations (Caiani et al., 2012: 3). The
use of social networks and social media channels facilitates joint mobilization of the wide variety
of extremist organizations and populist right wing parties (Wodak 2015). Both right wing
populists as well as extremists increasingly use anti-Islamist discourses that construct the
essentialist idea of defending of a nativist European “culture” based on Christianity (Caiani et al.,
2012: 151; Mudde, 2007:85).
Logic of Comparison
Given their different ideologies as well as the organizational differences I conceive of the SVP
and the EuroMayday campaigns as relevant cases for an asymmetric comparison (Krause 2016).
McAdam and Kloos suggest that the comparative analysis of contentious politics on immigration
and nativism focus not only on left and progressive movements but also on coalitions between
parties and movements, notably on the political right (McAdam and Kloos 2014). Accordingly,
my study explores the theoretical interest in understanding transnational mobilization on the issue
of immigration by comparing political actors with contrasting ideologies and with different
resources and organizational backgrounds, both right-wing political parties as well as grassroots,
left-wing social movements (Ibid).
The SVP can be understood as a political party whose provocative image mobilized and inspired
social movements on the extreme right as well as right wing populist parties (Betz 2013; Kallis
2013; Skenderovic 2009). In comparison, Euro Mayday used Youtube and alternative media sites
as a grassroots social movement organizing decentralized street parades involving undocumented
immigrants and resident immigrants, which took place in over 20 cities such as Hamburg,
Florence, Berlin and Milano (Doerr and Mattoni 2014). Unlike the SVP campaign, EuroMayday
captured mainstream media attention only briefly, even though it’s the campaign influenced some
institutional left unions and academics to consider precarity as a broad societal and political
problem (Doerr 2010). Indeed, although the SVP and the EuroMayday campaign design look
different, we shall see that both relied on professional media design. In comparison, I will ask:
How did the SVP and EuroMayday campaigns portray the relationship between immigrants and
citizens in order to reach out and mobilize supporters in distinct national contexts and
transnationally? The visual translation processes of these contrasting cases allow us to grasp the
wide spectrum of transnational political mobilization on citizenship and immigration.
Different National Political Contexts
In regard to how images potentially translate across different national political contexts, I focus
my study of the translation of the SVP poster on the LN in Italy and the NPD in Germany. This
allows me to trace how new contentious debates on immigration within the context of European
integration and globalization were situated within different contentious histories of fascism like
those of Germany and Italy. Regarding Switzerland, Skenderovic shows the historical
connections and fluid overlap between SVP and extreme right activist groups through
socialization, joint political events, and concrete endorsement within elections and extreme right-
wing publications since the eighties and nineties (Skenderovic 2009). The SVP officially denies
any connection to the most extremist groups and yet both uses ambivalent media discourse to
reach out to them and participates with them in transnational networks (Betz, 2013).
Within the particular political context of Italy, the LN is a right wing political party that, in light
of its anti-immigration policies, is arguably part of the extreme right (Caiani et al. 2012). As a
separatist political party from the North of Italy, the LN was part of the right wing coalition
between Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Movimento Sociale Italiano/Alleanza Nazionale during
the 1994 national elections (Caiani et al. 2012). While both MSI and AN have historically been
part of the neo-fascistic parliamentary organizations in Italy, LN joined their coalition using
xenophobic policy claims on immigration (Bar-On 2013).
Among political parties translating the SVP’s poster, the German NPD is an interesting case with
a different ideology from the LN. Caiani et al. situate the German NPD as a “radical political
party” with close connections to extreme right movement organizations (Caiani et al. 2012:28).
The NPD mobilizes within longstanding histories of fascism, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant
mobilization (Caiani et al 2012; Mudde 2007). It is interesting to compare whether and to what
extent the institutional right wing parties (SVP and LN) in my sample - despite their official
denial - use visually-styled cartoons as tools to propagate racist discourse in much the same vein
yet with a different strategy than the ideologically more extremist NPD.
Unlike the SVP, EuroMayday brought together local groups who did not have a national
organization but formed a loose, transnational network, communicating mostly through digital
and social media (Doerr and Mattoni 2014). Previous work has shown the political impact of
social media images studying the transnational diffusion and circulation of EuroMayday visuals
which occurred through alternative social media channels (Mattoni 2012). Activists created
alternative media or ‘media sociali’, including visual symbols with inspiring stories on the
‘ironies’ of social precarity and people’s individual struggles and the use of collective agency to
effect change (Mattoni 2012). In contrast to these progressive and cosmopolitan oriented visual
translations of precarity, the highly contentious translation of the black sheep symbol into
different national political contexts encourages the comparison of the substance of right-wing
and left-cosmopolitan political campaigns.
Methods and Data
This paper applies an interdisciplinary methodology of visual and discursive analysis drawing on
the work of research on social movements and social media (Doerr et al. 2013; Müller et al.
2009). Visual analysis extends primarily to three aspects of social movement dynamics: (1) visual
manifestations, as a class of expressions, produced in social movements; (2) the representation of
social movements in images disseminated in mediation processes; and (3) a larger societal
framework granting visibility to certain groups and claims while others remain invisible (Doerr et
al. 2013). Addressing the role of images versus texts, I will compare the visual and discursive
translation strategies used by the actors in the different cases within their different national and
local political contexts. In a first step of visual analysis, I apply the interdisciplinary methodology
of visual iconography (Müller et al. 2009).
Visual iconography is a method derived from art history. It allows social and political scientists to
analyze the complex aesthetic messages and possible misunderstandings within visual images
disseminated in multicultural transnational public spheres (Müller et al. 2009). I apply visual
iconography to compare and contrast the visual construction or omission of national borders by
right-wing versus left-wing political actors in the cases studied. An example is the visual
iconography of SVP black sheep visuals drawing on nationalistic flags and allusions to Nazi
iconography (Richardson and Wodak 2009), which can be contrasted to cosmopolitan online
maps diffused by the EuroMayday in the same period, which explicitly omitted national borders
(Doerr and Mattoni 2014). Beyond the conscious choices of visual design, my emphasis on
translation processes leads me to explore the complex aesthetic messages and possible (intended
or unintended) limits of visual translation, such as when people in one national context may not
be able to understand the symbols constructed by people in another (cf.Müller et al. 2009). The
time frame for visual analysis is the period of 2006-2008.
Following my in-depth visual analysis, I add an additional step of contextual analysis. This
contextualization is an additional inclusion of interdisciplinary sets of data to help me to deepen
my knowledge of the genres of the images, and the place within the historical context of image
traditions and forms (Ibid). For the contextualization, I rely on two different sets of qualitative
methods to consider the differences between the two cases as well as the particular challenges of
conducting research on right wing political actors (Caiani 2014). In ethical terms, I situate my
study as part of a critical research perspective directed at revealing racist and xenophobic visuals
and contents, in order to create a broader “critical visual literacy” perspective in the social
sciences (Kress and Van Leeuwen 2006). To apply this critical perspective I analyze selected
statements by right wing politicians and activists made to journalists on the issue of the black
sheep motive choosing news. For my corpus I selected two leading international quality
newspapers featuring different ideologies, i.e., the liberal New York Times and the more
conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, In addition, I selected one Italian language regional
online news source, Tio.ch/20 Minuti, owned by the Swiss media company Tameda. Read by
regional audiences in the North of Italy as well as in the Italian parts of Switzerland, Tio.ch/20
Minuti was reporting in depth about official statements by LN politicians about both the
perceived racist contents of their party’s poster.
My analysis of politicians’ statements is inspired by the Discourse Historical Approach within
Critical Discourse Analysis (Richardson and Wodak 2009). In the perspective of DHA, I propose
to analyze how radical right-wing parties in different countries use posters to construct “political
imaginaries” representing different imaginary historical pasts and identity narratives (Wodak,
2013: 26). I contrast official press statements to the content of the posters circulated online and
offline. I analyze news statements. In a multimodal perspective of analysis (Kress and Van
Leeuwen 2006) the combining of different discursive and visual materials will allow me to trace
how racist contents circulate among grassroots activists while being denied by party officials as
part of what Wodak has termed the “calculated ambivalence” within right wing populist discourse
practices (Wodak, 2013:27).
For my data analysis of the black sheep campaign, my sample includes relevant visuals found on
webpages and blogs by the groups associated with the cases studied. The data analysis was
carried out in 2016. I constructed a theoretical sample that included images with a clear “black
sheep” theme created by the groups in the cases analyzed found through Google searches
including in total 98 visuals. The problem was that the right wing extremist groups studied used
changing webpages on which they circulated images inspired by the SVP. This data sampling
challenge reflects Caiani’s finding that far-right activists use the Internet as a highly important,
anonymous public space for transnational or even global communication (Caiani 2014).
To understand the dynamics of translation and political meaning-making in the transnational
EuroMayday network, I analyzed visual materials and posters displayed on EuroMayday
homepages and blogs, focusing on the production of distinct images as well as their re-
contextualization and translation by Euromayday activists in place-specific settings. I was a
participant observer in two European and six local small-group meetings of the EuroMayday
network in Berlin and Milan in the years 2007 – 2008. I included as additional materials for my
contextual analysis a number of selected qualitative in-depth interviews and impressions from
participant observation of EuroMayday activist meetings. I conducted in total 30 interviews with
EuroMayday designers and participants. I coded the evidence gained through the interviews,
expecting EuroMayday activists to be motivated by an ideational logic of counter-hegemonic,
autonomous, anarchist, anti-racist strategies (Mattoni 2012).
Transposing Ethno-Nationalist Boundaries by Bonding against the Black Sheep
My findings regarding the black sheep poster campaigns reflect the sophisticated use of visual
politics deployed by right wing political parties. What was striking in the SVP’s capacity to shift
national mainstream politics from a moderate to a radical debate about “criminal foreigners”
launched by the “black sheep” poster. This is reflected, for example, in reporting by the New
York Times: “As voters prepare to go to the polls in a general election on Oct. 21, the poster —
and the party’s underlying message — have polarized a country that prides itself on peaceful
consensus in politics, neutrality in foreign policy and tolerance in human relations” (Sciolino,
2007:7). The SVP used the poster to build widespread popular support for legal measures to expel
immigrants convicted of minor offenses and to restrict their access to legal aid. While perceived
as scandalous in 2007, these radical policy proposals in 2016 have gained new media attention
across Europe in the context of public polemics related to crimes allegedly committed by
refugees (see, e.g., Ritter 2016). Following a successful national referendum campaign in 2007,
the SVP initiative also advocated discussion of a further step to deport the entire families of
minors who committed crimes (Sciolino 2007). Illustration 1 shows the SVP posters as displayed
in public spaces within Switzerland (see Illustration 1 on p. 3).
As a first step of visual content analysis, note that the poster constructs a strong nationalist
contrast between white and black, i.e. Swiss citizens and criminal foreigners. In visual terms, this
dichotomous strategy is further emphasized through the use of colors: the red Swiss flag acting as
a field for the white “Swiss” citizens while “criminal foreigners” are relegated to a colorless no-
man’s-land and thus associated only with the loaded “black sheep” stereotype. In terms of its
color dichotomy and use of black and white, the black sheep poster acts ambivalently and
conflates several historic racist and religious icons (Richardson and Colombo 2014). Graphic
visuals using flashy colors such as red, black and white are supposed to attract attention (Kress
and Van Leeuwen 2006) and are a well-known discursive genre used by racist and anti-Semitic
groups in the past and present (Wodak and Richardson 2009).
If we analyze the visual contents and the immediate text in this poster together, we find evidence
of what Wodak calls “calculated ambivalence” (Wodak, 2013: 27). In other words, because of the
lack of explicit references, the black sheep symbol in the poster (like all visuals) invites multiple
interpretations (Müller et al. 2009). As the visual elements of the poster in themselves do not
make it explicit that the “black sheep” represents a criminal foreigner, the symbol may indeed be
interpreted to connote ‘foreigners’ generally. This racist reading becomes likely, for example, if
the symbol is read together with the ambivalent title “For more security” (my translation from the
German title Für mehr Sicherheit). The visual could also be interpreted even more broadly as
‘those who do not fit into (our) family’, which could allow for mobilization against different
‘minority groups’ or even against those in opposition to the policy proposals made. As will be
shown, the extremist NPD did in fact translate and use the ambivalent black sheep symbol to
create a more extremist and openly racist poster text.
In fact, in 2016 the SVP itself re-used the racist visual design to create a more radical and novel
version of the original black sheep poster radicalizing its rally cry to deport ‘criminal foreigners’.
Using the same symbolic and graphic design as the original 2007 version seen in Illustration 1,
the 2016 version has a clearly radicalized battle cry: “Endlich Sicherheit schaffen”, or “Creating
security, finally”, or “Let’s finally create security (my translation from the German original title).
By adding the notion “finally” to the title, the text suggests urgency and the intention of imposing
restrictive legal measures to expel “criminal foreigners.” At the level of racist contexts, the text’s
focus on finality may also be read as an implicit allusion to historic national socialist jargon on
the “final solution” and the Holocaust (cf. Richardson and Wodak 2009).
The Italian LN used the black sheep visual created by the SVP to benefit its own political agenda,
translating its content into a different national, linguistic, and political context. As a separatist
right wing party in northern Italy, the LN has profited from the recent rise in right wing
resentment and has attracted right wing and extremist sympathizers by demanding a halt to
immigration by non-European immigrants to Northern Italy, particularly immigrants with a
Muslim or African regional background (Bar-On 2013). Following the original SVP black sheep
campaign, the LN was a key actor in popularizing the SVP’s poster in national television
programs and local party rallies. Creating and promoting their own black sheep t-shirts, LN party
leaders participated in highly visible TV shows. On TV and in interviews with journalists, they
referenced the SVP’s black sheep campaign and framed themselves and the SVP as the ‘true’
victims of immigration in Europe. As an example, following an official presentation at a press
conference in Rome of the LN’s black sheep poster inspired by the SVP, a prominent LN leader,
Roberto Castelli, asserted to journalists that the LN’s poster had no racist content (Tio.ch/20
Minuti 2007). In conjunction with the official presentation, the right-wing separatist party journal
“Padana” printed the poster shown in Illustration 3.
(Illustration 3 about here: Black sheep poster designed by the Italian Lega Nord)
The LN poster replaces the Swiss flag and its red cross with the symbol of the wheel on a green
background, which identifies the northern Italian regional focus of its own party. LN activists
thus combine their parochial and specific symbols with universalist “black sheep” stereotyping of
immigrants, foreigners, and minorities.
At the level of linguistic translation and political recontextualization, the LN poster supports an
article by party president Umberto Bossi, written in Italian in the party journal and focusing on
the urge to toughen national anti-immigration policies. The symbolic action on the LN poster is
framed as “Security Lessons from the North,” which leaves somewhat ambiguous who exactly is
the author of these security lessons, and what is meant by the black sheep (Doerr forthcoming).
This relatively vague and ambiguous linguistic translation of the black sheep poster allowed LN –
just as the original had allowed the SVP - to address a broad spectrum of socially and
geographically diverse supporters and mobilize the general perception of non-European
immigrants as criminals (Bar-On 2013). The poster text also appeals to the discourse of the
homeland, entitled “Security at home” (Italian: Sicuri a casa nostra). Moreover, “lessons from
the North” may stand for both the SVP in the geographic North of Switzerland, and the northern
regional separatist party identity of the LN.
To contextualize the poster, it is interesting to understand how LN party members verbally
translated the poster with reference to Italian proverbs and colloquial language use of the black
sheep metaphor in religious and popular culture. LN politician Roberto Castelli, who was
Minister of Justice under Berlusconi, defended the poster against critical journalists by arguing it
was not aimed at recreating racism but rather had been “uniquely inspired by an Italian traditional
use of the ‘black sheep metaphor according to which a ‘black sheep’ refers to “those who leave
the flock” (20 Minuti).2 Castelli was refering to a colloquial Italian usage of the notion of ‘black
sheep’ (Italian: “pecora nera che traligna il gregge”) with multiple interpretations. A black sheep
in Italian can be interpreted to refer to children who disappoint their parents as well as to
individuals who are ‘different’ from the ‘norm’, such as homosexuals. Within the context of
historical agricultural usage in Italy, black sheep, even today, connote inferior animals for which
Italian farmers and shepherds receive less money on the market - the coat of a white sheep is
easier to dye.3 LN leaders not only denied the racist message of the image but also the multiple
historical racist meanings and intertextual associations of the ‘black sheep’ metaphor within
Italian popular culture, as well as the party’s broad media strategy to publicize the poster within
the context of its anti-immigrant politics (cf. Richardson and Wodak 2009).
2 Translation from Italian by the author.
3 I am grateful to the suggestions and comments provided by Maria Manera and Valentina Paradiso regarding this
Operating within both national and trans-national contexts, members and sympathizers of the
German neo-Nazi party NPD carried out the most extremist and transnationally-oriented
translation of the SVP poster. Different regional NPD parties in Eastern and Western Germany
reproduced the SVP poster in their own local electoral campaigns. In blogs and webpages such as
the Swiss German “RainbowNetBlog Schweiz”, neo-Nazi NPD sympathizers combined each
other’s posters in a collage and constructed their own transnational vision of an association
between populist right wing and extremist groups at the European level (see Illustration 4).
(Illustration 4 about here: Visual from “RainbowNetBlog Schweiz”)
From an NPD sympathizer's perspective, the poster in Illustration 4 constructs a radical symbolic
alliance among populist anti-immigrant parties in Switzerland and Italy, the German extremist
NPD, and neo-fascist NPD sympathizers.
At the level of visual content, the NPD poster repeats and combines the messages of all previous
right-wing posters inspired by the SVP. While retaining the Swiss flag as a nationalist
background motif, this poster design appropriates it for the bloggers’ own extreme ideology and
radicalizes the underlying racist message and content of the SVP’s political message, without the
necessary approval of the SVP. The illustration keeps most visual elements of the original poster
while transposing its meaning from a national to a transnational right-wing message. The
symbolic “white sheep” in this simplistic poster are given names such as “SVP,” “Lega Nord,”
and “NPD,” thus losing all ambiguity. Through the process of multiple rounds of translation in
online public venues created by radical sympathizers, the SVP’s populist rhetoric is being
replaced by an extreme racist visual rhetoric that accentuates and increases the binary narrative of
threat by multiplying the number of “black sheep.”
The NPD’s translation is carried out most explicitly at the level of the new poster title: The NPD
German language poster title “Sippenhaft Dank SVP” (English: Family punishment due to the
SVP) alludes ambiguously to the NPD’s neo-Nazi ideology while connecting it to the most
controversial claim of the SVP: to deport not only criminal immigrants but also, in the case of
criminal minors, the immigrant's entire family. This title associates the SVP’s present policy
proposal in Switzerland with the German history of national socialist practices of family
punishment (“Sippenhaft”) used towards political opponents and Jews (Doerr forthcoming). In
the perspective of DHA, it is a good example to illustrate how extreme right-wing parties
combine multiple layers of text and context within one poster to construct “political imaginaries”
representing a trans-national identity narrative suiting their own ideology within the history of
fascism in Europe (Wodak, 2013: 26). The new title makes a national-socialist practice the shared
core of an imaginary alliance among anti-immigrant organizations in different countries.
However, the NPD bloggers’ solidarity expression remained one-sided: Neither the SVP nor the
LN officially cross-referenced any of the NPD’s posters or online blogs.
The case of the SVP poster translation illustrates how different populist and extremist right-wing
political parties and grassroots activists combined several visual and text-based processes to
translate the black sheep poster in reference to their own ideologies and strategic needs. The open
question is how left-libertarian social movements contest campaigns such as these and try to
break racist stereotypes of immigrants.
EuroMayday: Creating Cosmopolitan Images of Citizenship and Immigration
In the present section I explore, in contrast to the SVP’s anti-immigrant images, how the
EuroMayday network constructed progressive visual images of immigrants in order to give credit
to the participation of immigrants in many of its local groups across Europe. In contrast to the
SVP campaign, the EuroMayday poster designers worked decentrally and constructed webpages
and blogs that addressed specific, local Mayday groups in the cities of Italy, Germany, and other
European countries (Doerr and Mattoni 2014). I will restrict my analysis to the posters of two of
the largest local EuroMayday groups, in Milan and Berlin.
As a participant-observer and in interviews, I found that local EuroMayday activists in Italy and
German virulently disagreed about European politics. Many Italian activists supported the idea of
a European dimension on the issue of social precarity, while a number of German activists were
more skeptical toward this idea (Doerr 2010). Despite this deep, ideological disagreement on
European politics, a first relevant finding is that EuroMayday groups in both Germany and Italy
shared a visual theme in posters and stickers that refer to EU immigration policies, and to
immigrants, as positive forces for solidarity beyond the nation state. A good example of
protesters’ alternative images of EU citizenship and immigration is provided by a poster designed
by EuroMayday Milan in 2008 (Illustration 2 on p. 5).
To put this design in context, it should be noted that posters displayed on the websites of local
Mayday groups in Italy, Germany and other countries are widely different in style and content,
and that all were created and distributed by the activists themselves. One of the EuroMayday
founders from Milan, herself a professional graphic designer, explains how she put together the
poster after intense discussion within her group:
I made this poster based on a photograph we took [in Milan]. The female figure is a
migrant; the male figure is a precarious [worker]. This poster stresses migration as a
topic, and the struggles for migrants in our own network, as also written in the text.4
In the above e-mail interview, this designer of the Mayday poster in Milan 2008 explains that the
input of immigrants entering the local group in Milan led to a change in the visual self-
presentation of their group (Illustration 2). In relation to how the couple is visually portrayed, the
Italian text mentions immigrants first and precarious [workers] second, emphasizing the political
relevance of immigrants within this protest event. Moreover, elements of text are combined with
visual designs, with an English language slogan addressing the European dimension of protest
(Let’s conspire and fight for the Other Europe) as well as an Italian subheading addressing
precarious workers and other immigrant workers participating in the protest parade. Listed in the
subtle green hue at the left margin of the poster are all of the European protest cities involved in
the EuroMayday campaign, while the red dot on the right side marks the place and time of the
local protest. In iconographic terms, note the different colors produced in the poster in Illustration
2, symbolizing different ideological groups in the local Milan coalition of protestors. For
example, according to Milan-based EuroMayday founders, pink stands for queerness as a new
radical subjectivity within the distinct context of Milan and beyond traditional left workers’
mobilizations (Doerr 2010).
4 Interview with the EuroMayday designer, November 6, 2008, Milan.
More evidence based on the interviews helps us to understand the connections between visual
and verbal translation practices taking place in transnational groups and movements. The Milan
EuroMayday group’s pluralist composition, and its discussions about restrictive immigration laws
by the Italian government inspired a “we-group” poster that symbolizes the joint struggle of
undocumented and documented labor immigrants working with other long-term EuroMayday
Milan activists. She says:
Then we talked about the Bossi/Fini legislation against migrants, and new racism. What is
politically very important is that the poster shows second generation migrants, who are
part of our network […]. This poster does not show our foes, it shows us, our group.”5
The interviewee argues that the deliberative process that inspired her group to produce the above
poster, in discussing about restrictive immigration laws, gave birth to a new image of the group.
Translating the meaning of the poster she created, the interviewee reconstructs the history of the
EuroMayday collective in Milan as an extended “we” group in which immigrants become more
At the beginning, EuroMayday was very much a network on precarity. In 2008 for the
first time, migrants participated actively in the process of constructing the
EuroMayday parade [in Milan] so we felt they should be protagonists with us on the
5 Interview with the EuroMayday designer, November 6, 2008, Milan.
6 Interview with the EuroMayday designer, November 6, 2008, Milan.
Like the Milanese example, all EuroMayday posters found online visualize immigration as an
activity of everyday life within Europe’s global cities and their peripheries. Note, however, the
place-specific differences in poster style among local EuroMayday groups of the transnational
micro-public space created by EuroMayday activists. A useful example with which to
demonstrate this is a comparison of the Milan EuroMayday posters with those of the local
Mayday parade in Berlin. Inspired by their Italian colleagues, Berlin-based EuroMayday
members designed three posters showing a young cleaner, a young white androgynous figure
crossing a border fence by cutting it, and an elderly man without stable residence fleeing from the
police.”7 In other words, as in the Milanese poster, Berliners placed a figure of an immigrant at
the center of their poster trilogy “work/migration/city.” This choice was intentional. The border-
crossing figure in the center provides a contrast to conventional media icons of undocumented
immigrants (Falk 2010).
Despite these similarities, the visual content in posters in Berlin and Milan provide evidence of
different place-specific political ideas and a selective sharing and translation of the EuroMayday
posters in Milan which had initially inspired the Berlin group. As a participant, I observed that
that immigrants present at Berlin Mayday meetings asked for a stronger inclusion of trans-
European topics and sharing of contents with groups from other European cities but were turned
down by German Mayday leaders, who wanted a stronger focus on Berlin-based political issues.8
The decision not to refer to European topics is reflected, first and foremost, in the style of the
poster designs. The posters by the Berlin group include the word “EuroMayday” but only in very
7 http://interkomm.so36.net/archiv/2006-05-01/2006-05-01-buendnis.php. [Accessed on 1.1.2010]
8 Participant observation, Mayday Berlin preparatory meeting, May 2009, Berlin.
small font.9 In comparison, the Milan poster in Illustration 2 follows a European framing in its
text and visual iconography.
Recall that in Milan, group-internal discussions led to a broad European framing of its parade and
placed immigrants in the center of its visual design. On the other hand, Berlin Mayday designers,
said when interviewed that they had refused to adopt distinct iconographic elements symbolizing
the broader European dimension of EuroMayday, offered for sharing by the Milan group. Their
stated motives for rejecting Milan’s offer were a place-specific visual poster culture, and the
rejection by local group leaders of a positive political reference to the concept of Europe.The
creator of the Berlin Mayday poster trilogy explained his choice of visual designs within the
specific context of Berlin:
“I personally feel that Europe is not attractive as a topic for Mayday posters (in the
specific context of Berlin). […] We try to design what we call ‘social images’: images that
question existing social relationships, images that come to dance, that are able to ‘swing'
the relationship between the viewer and the image.”10
The interview-based evidence shows how local group deliberation in Berlin led to the production
of images perceived as “attractive” by place-specific group insiders such as the poster designers.
In contrast to the reproduction of racist stereotypes in the case of the SVP, anti-racist translation
in the case of EuroMayday activists carefully considered the local meaning of visual forms in
order to construct socially inclusive images. Other interviewees noted that members of the Berlin
9 A copy of the poster trilogy (Illustration 2) is archived online on the homepage of a group from Berlin:
http://interkomm.so36.net/archiv/2006-05-01/2006-05-01-buendnis.php. [Accessed on 1.1.2010] [Accessed:
October 1, 2009].
10 Interview with a Berlin Mayday designer, February 2, 2010, Berlin.
group had discussed and agreed with their designers’ view, which supported a decidedly local
visual poster culture that distinguishes itself from images that work like commercial
advertizements.11 Moreover, only in Milan did immigrants directly influence the group discussion
on the visual design of the posters that represented them in the EuroMayday campaign. While
immigrants were visible participants in the Milan protest parades, their participation decreased
during the Berlin Mayday parades. And yet, while right-wing mobilization elided the broader
socioeconomic context affecting citizens in different European societies and nation states, the
left-wing EuroMayday campaign created a cosmopolitan vision of solidarity connecting citizens
and immigrants living in countries such as Italy and Germany with place specific national
histories of fascist movements and political institutions.
My comparison shows that the figure of the immigrant is the symbolic core not only of
institutionally endorsed right-wing anti-immigrant campaigns but also of non-institutional
grassroots campaigns by left-wing activists constructing a trans-nationalist vision of
cosmopolitan solidarity between immigrants and precarious activists in Europe. The figure of the
immigrant denigrated as a stereotypic black sheep inspired by the Swiss SVP has been translated
and appropriated by populist right-wing parties and radical extremists in Germany and Italy. The
SVP’s use of a professionally designed and racist “black sheep” motive that referred to no
specific group allowed different right wing actors to translate and recontextualize the poster for
their own purposes. Following the example of the LN and the NPD, the SVP also reused the
design in a new context in 2016 to rally sentiment against a broader range of minorities including
11 Interview with a Mayday organizers, April 4, 2009, interview with a Mayday participant, May 5, 2009, Berlin.
This article has shown how transnational diffusion processes depend on a complex cultural
process of translation that changes the political meanings of contentious images and protest
(Chabot 2010). Right wing political actors translated the SVP’s ambivalent racist visual motive
making few adaptations; the far-right German NPD utilized an explicitly extremist jargon
referencing historic fascist discourse. Reflecting a populist right wing strategy, the separatist LN
in Italy followed the example of the SVP and used a calculated ambivalence (Wodak 2013); its
leaders officially denied their use of implicitly racist symbolism and metaphor. By scapegoating
immigrants as societies’ shared internal foe, right-wing political activists succeed in mobilizing
sympathetic audiences across Europe precisely by constructing a culturally homogeneous and
stereotypical ethno-nationalist image of citizenship.
Compared to the right wing’s restrictive notion of citizenship, left-wing campaigns like
EuroMayday illustrate the potential of creating inclusive and diverse imaginaries of citizenship
and immigration in Europe inspiring transnational networks of solidarity through connective
action and alternative social media (Bennett and Segerberg; Mattoni 2012). Engaging in a
reflective process of translation, EuroMayday activists living in Germany refrained from sharing
some of their Italian colleagues’ local progressive ideas and images of immigration. Compared to
their colleagues in Milan, the local group members in Berlin had varying ideas about what makes
a good visualization of cultural diversity and immigrants’ participation and agency. This is
important as it highlights the challenges and limitations of progressive activists’ attempts to
translate cosmopolitan images of citizenship across different national and linguistic contexts, in
contrast to the right wing’s rapid and effective diffusion and contentious translation of
denigrating images of minorities in multicultural transnational public spaces.
Bachmann, H (2007) Bye-Bye, Black Sheep. Time Online. Sept. 21, 2007. Accessed at
http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1664269,00.html, no page numbers.
Bennett, L, and A Segerberg (2013) The Logic of Connective Action. Digital Media and the
Personalization of Contentious Politics. New York/Oxford: Oxforder University Press.
Betz, HG (2013) “Mosques, Minarets, Burqas and Other Essential Threats: the populist right's
campaign against Islam in Western Europe” In Wodak, R, B Mral, M KhosraviNik (eds): Right-
Wing Populism in Europe - Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsburg. Pp: 71-88.
Caiani, M, D della Porta, D, and C Wagemann (2012) Mobilizing on the Extreme Right:
Germany, Italy, and the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Caiani, M (2014) “Social network analysis.” In: D della Porta (ed) Methodological Practices in
Social Movements Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp: 368-396.
Chabot, S (2012) “Dialogue matters: beyond the transmission model of transnational diffusion
between social movements” in The Diffusion of Social Movements--Actors, Mechanisms, and
Political Effects. Eds R Kolin Givan, M Roberts, and S A Soule. Pp. 99-124.
Doerr, N (2017) “Bonding against Immigrants, Bridging Language Barriers: A Visual Analysis of
Contentious Cartoons created by Far-right Activists in Europe.” Discourse and Society 28(1).
Doerr, Nicole. 2012. “Translating democracy: how activists in the European Social Forum
practice multilingual deliberation.” European Political Science Review. 4 (03): 361-384.
Doerr, N (2010) “Politicizing Precarity, Producing Visual Dialogues on Migration: Transnational
Public Spaces in Social Movements.” Forum Qualitative Social Research 11 (2). No page
Falk, F (2010). “Invasion, Infection, Invisibility: An Iconology of Illegalized Immigration.” In
Images of Illegalized Immigration. Towards a Critical Iconology of Politics. C. Bischoff, F.
Falk, S. Kafehsy. Bielefeld: transcript. Pp: 83-100.
Jakobson, R (2000 ) “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation.” In Laurence Venuti, (ed), The
Translation Studies Reader New York: Routledge, pp 113- 118.
Kallis, A (2013) “Breaking Taboos and 'Mainstreaming the Extreme': the debates on restricting
Islamic symbols in contemporary Europe” In Wodak, R, B Mral, M KhosraviNik (eds): Right-
Wing Populism in Europe - Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsburg, pp 55-70.
Krause, M (2016) “Comparative Research: Beyond Linear-Causal Explanation. In Deville, J,
Guggenheim, M and Hrdlickova, Z Eds Practising Comparison: Logics, Rlations,
Collaborations. Mattering Press: Manchester, pp 45-67.
Kress, G R, and T Van Leeuwen (2006) Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design.
Mattoni, A, 2012 (2012) Media Practices and Protest Politics. How Precarious Workers
Mobilise. London: Routledge.
McAdam, D, and K Kloos, 2014. Deeply Divided—Racial Politics and Social Movements in
Postwar America. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.
Mudde, C 2007. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Belgium: University of Antwerp.
Müller, M G; E Özcan, and O Seizov (2009) “Dangerous Depictions. A visual case study of
contemporary cartoon controversies.” In: Popular Communication, 7(1): 28-39.
Papacharissi, Z 2015. Affective Publics—Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. New York: Oxford
Richardson, J E, and M Colombo (2014) “Race and immigration in far- and extreme-right
European political leaflets” In: Hart & Cap (eds) Contemporary Critical Discourse Studies,
London: Bloomsbury Academic. European Public Policy, 10(4), 487-505.
Richardson, J E, and R Wodak (2009) “Recontextualising fascist ideologies of the past: right-
wing discourses on employment and nativism in Austria and the United Kingdom” Critical
Discourse Studies 6(4): 251-267.
Ritter, J (2016) “Wir ausschaffen das“ FAZ 28.02.2016. Accessed at
14092864.html. No page numbers.
Schmidt, V (2016) “Brexit and the EU: A new deal for all the EU or no deal at all?” Governance
Journal, June 30, 2016. No pages numbers. Accessible at: https://governancejournal.net/
Download date: July 1, 2016.
Sciolino, E (2007) “Immigration, Black Sheep and Swiss Rage” New York Times, Oct 7, 2007.
Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/world/europe/08swiss.html?_r=0
Tio.ch/20 Minuti (2007) “Manifesto pecore, dopo la NPD anche la Lega Nord copia l’UDC.” 5
December. Available at: http://www.tio.ch/News/Ticino/366434/Manifesto-pecore-dopo-la-
NPD-anche-la-Lega-Nord-copia-l-UDC/ (Accessed 29 June 2016). [No Doerr]
Skenderovic, D (2009) The Radical Right in Switzerland. Continuity and Change, 1945-2000.
Frankfurt/New York: Berghahn. Tilly, C 2004. “Social boundary mechanisms” Philosophy of
the Social Sciences 34 (2): 211-36.
Wodak, R (2015) The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London:
Illustration 3: Black sheep poster designed by the Italian Lega Nord
Illustration 4: Visual from “RainbowNetBlog Schweiz”