We Are Europe

A man sits on an upturned bucket in front of a grey photographer’s backdrop. He holds a shepherd’s crook in his hands. On either side of the backdrop are over a dozen cows in the stall of a huge barn.

Are you in Europe? It’s not a trick question. Or a simple one. You might live in Europe and feel deeply connected to your identity as a European. Or feel proud of your nationality and consider Europe as secondary. Perhaps you have no strong feelings either way. Certainly, nothing is as complex and nuanced as the bond we feel to the place we call home – whether that is a town, city, country or even continent. Canon Ambassador, Lieve Blancquaert, understands this, probably better than anyone.

Lieve and her friend Marij De Brabandere spent five months on the road in a motorhome, travelling 33,000 kilometres across Europe. Why? They were in search of some kind of unity. The values we share, the hopes, the dreams… what we want the future to look like. She used her camera to document a Europe that is both uniquely now – in a time of great change and unrest – but also somehow timeless, because it depicts the concerns in the hearts of people.

The idea and her journey both began in Berlin, but 34 years apart. On 9th November 1989, she was driving in East Berlin for a meeting, but as she navigated through the streets, they seemed different. She saw a huge number of people, all moving in the same direction, heading towards the Berlin Wall. “So, I opened my window, and asked, ‘where are you all going? And they said, ‘The wall came down! The wall came down!’” It was, as we all know, a profoundly important event in European history and Lieve recalls how everyone was caught up in this historic moment, knowing that it would change everything. “People were together, we were united. And maybe [it was] completely naive. But that was my feeling in that time. Of course, 35 years later, it's a different story.”

The grey photographer’s backdrop is pinned on the right half of a set of goalposts. Half in front of the goalposts and half in front of the backdrop are twenty young Black men posing in two rows, like a football squad, with the front row crouching. The ground beneath them is parched earth and the walls of a storm drain rise to the left and right.

Spain — Senegalese refugees playing football in an empty storm drain in Cuevas del Almanzora

Playing football is our salvation. It ensures we stay strong and don’t go crazy. We really aren’t asking for much and yet we’re not welcome anywhere.”

At the time, there were only ten member states in the European Union. Today there are 27 and over the course of five months, the pair visited every single one – plus the United Kingdom, which formally left the union in 2020. “The idea was to figure out what connects us. To find out what people think about their future and the idea that they belong to that group.” explains Lieve. “I had the idea to take ten simple questions, and translated them into 24 languages – like ‘what scares you the most?’, ‘do you feel poor or rich?’, ‘how do you see the future?’ and ‘what is the biggest challenge that we have?’ Questions that a child and 100-year-old can answer.”

The answers she received were often difficult to hear. Over five physically and emotionally challenging months she witnessed love, fear, beauty, ugliness, wealth, poverty, comfort, desperation and anger. A young Roma woman who wants more than motherhood. Queer club owners in Poland who hope one day they can marry. A young Belgian sheep farmer, frustrated by legal loopholes. A middle-aged man in Luxembourg who swapped the rat race for a caravan. And refugees, so many refugees, seeking a home and sense of acceptance, but very few finding either.

Lieve found that, for many, the past was as powerful a force in their lives as the present. Some nostalgic for better times, others with an ever-present spectre of danger that could almost be intergenerational trauma. In Estonia, she meets Janika, an HR manager and mother of two who is part of the Naiskodukaitse – the voluntary women’s army. “She tells me that for her, an invasion is a plausible scenario and not a fantasy. Her grandparents, parents, and she herself, have all experienced it first-hand.”

Four people stand in front of a grey photographer’s backdrop with their heads bowed and arms around each other. Beyond the backdrop are huge snow-covered mountains.

Italy — Alberto, Martina, Giuseppe and Luca, a group of friends from near Trento, at the Marmolada Glacier in the Dolomites. In 2022, a huge column of glacial ice collapsed on the mountain, killing eleven people, wounding eight and put climate change into sharp focus for local people.

Miraculously, we survived the disaster. I myself was badly injured and almost lost my leg, but I am still alive. A friend of ours died here. Coming back here is hard. It hurts and it scares me.”

As Lieve passed from country to country, she discovered contrasts, contradictions and conditions that form a picture of Europe which is kaleidoscopically complex in almost every aspect. Decisions taken by those in power can affect some people in bad ways and vice versa. Nothing is ever as clear cut as we might believe it to be. And while she deliberately omits politics from her narrative, such issues tend to bubble up to the surface through topics such as climate change, LGBTQ+ rights, the refugee crisis and the impact of Brexit.

“But make no mistake,” she says firmly. “My book and my project are not political. It's really the little stories of people and what they struggle with. It doesn't matter what kind of political party you are in – it's not the story of them and us.” And she does discover that there are some things we all share, regardless of location or language. “Love and security are important to everyone,” she writes in her book, ‘We Are Europe – Encounter with a Continent’. “We all want to be healthy and stay healthy. We want peace and tranquillity. Parents everywhere hope for a bright future for their children.”

The We Are Europe project and exhibition is supported by Canon Belgium. Lieve’s journey is also an hour-long documentary and a six-part docu-series for Belgian television Channel VRT CANVAS and VRT MAX called Wij zijn Europa.