Between green deals and ideals

As a centre of power, Brussels is an attractive place for those wanting to influence how that power is used to shape the lives of 450 million people across Europe.

This process of trying to influence governmental decision-making is also known as lobbying. The term comes from the word ‘lobia’, which means a waiting room, hall or antechamber. In the political sense, lobbying originally referred to one of the lobbies of the British House of Commons; an area where the public could go to speak to their members of parliament. The word was popularised by the American President Ulysses S. Grant, who would often find himself surrounded by petitioners as he sat in the lobby of the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. to enjoy his cigar and brandy. He referred to these individuals as ‘lobbyists’.

An estimated 30,000 lobbyists are believed to roam around the European capital, a significant number of whom work from offices established in the city. The interests they lobby for are varied, working on behalf of a diverse range of organisations – from NGOs, multinational companies and consultancies to law firms, industry associations, labour unions and religious communities. They carry around business cards with job titles such as vice-president of government relations, public affairs consultant, director of regulatory affairs and policy & advocacy manager. But they all share a common objective: to promote the interests they represent and influence public decisions which may come to affect the lives of Europe’s citizens.

The label of the lobbyist is not a particularly positive one, and not all of these individuals or organisations like to see themselves on such terms. The one religious organisation that appears in this book explicitly refuses the label. “It is important for us that the viewers of your project are made clearly aware of the fact that we do not consider ourselves as lobbyists and do not agree with such definition of our organisation,” I was told when I approached them. “The term has in many countries a very clearly negative connotation and it is therefore understandable that a number of actors – not only churches – do not wish to be dismissively/simplistically labelled in this way.”

The public image of lobbying is not particularly positive either. An online image search for ‘lobbyist’ or ‘lobbying’ results in pictures of bags of money, cash exchanges under a table, puppeteers and lots of handshakes. As a practice, it is commonly associated with secrecy and often it is excess and corruption that rises to the surface and dominates lobbying’s presence in the news. An astounding illustration of this is the Qatargate scandal, a cash-for-influence controversy that shook the European Parliament in late 2022 – right in the midst of developing this body of work. 

Lobbying is a legitimate act of political participation tied to universal values such as freedom of speech and the right to petition government. It can help make different voices heard in the decision-making process and it is a valuable way for decision-makers to gain information. Yet it also needs to work with transparency and integrity. How can the complexity of this practice be communicated? Is there a visual form that can interrogate its many layers? As a former lobbyist turned visual artist, I wanted to create a visual expedition through the Brussels world of lobbying as I know it.

Focusing on the everyday performance of influence, this project explores the role that photography can play in this regard. Bearing in mind the complex relationship between the nature of photography and transparency, I am interested in how an artistic approach can facilitate transparency. In politics and governance, transparency is the principle of allowing those affected by decisions to know about the process that led to them. The more open the process, the easier it is to ensure balanced representation and avoid undue pressure or privileged access. With lobbying often perceived as the ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ powers that influence political decision-making, transparency makes those seeking to shape public policy more visible.

LOBBY is a photographic attempt to help enhance this visibility and promote public scrutiny. Building on the experiences of my professional career in public affairs, I set in motion a photographic and social experiment with the aim of bringing about more openness within the Brussels lobby. Over the course of a year, I reached out to the core EU institutions and 122 interest groups seeking access and permission to take a photograph of the lobbies of their offices in the interest of transparency.

The project is set against the backdrop of the European Green Deal, an ambitious package of policies and initiatives proposed by the European Commission in 2019 to make Europe the world's first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Tackling the environmental, economic and social impact of climate change requires a major transformation across all sectors in society. As a consequence, the deal attracts a wide variety of lobbyists, keen to defend their ideals or steer towards favourable compromises. Environmental NGOs, consumer groups, youth organisations, farmers, businesses and trade associations representing industries such as automobile manufacturers, steel makers, airlines and energy producers all recognise the importance of the green transition, yet profound differences exist regarding the way in which to achieve it.

To select a set of lobbies, I used publicly available transparency instruments that allow citizens to track lobby activities in the European Union. In particular, I looked at the frequency of meetings between interest representatives and the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, his cabinet members and the top-level EU civil servant in charge of Climate Action. The interest groups with the most meetings, as well as an office space in Brussels, were selected for this work.

At the heart of this body of work is my own lobby campaign to get access to the lobbies of the selected organisations. I drafted an email introducing myself as a visual artist with a background in public affairs. I expressed my concerns about the distance between Brussels and European citizens and outlined my endeavours to capture the European climate lobby through a series of photographs showcasing the office lobbies of a wide range of organisations. I also declared that I would incorporate the organisation into my project – whether or not they granted me access – as a visual representation of the principles of openness and transparency.

Over the course of a year, I travelled back and forth a dozen times between my hometown of The Hague and Brussels to take the photographs. The shoots never became routine. Each visit involved meeting a new organisation with its own identity and different representatives welcoming me with varying levels of interest in the project. It was important that I was given explicit access and permission to take the photograph. At each organisation, I determined which area of the office to photograph. I opted for the space that most resembled an area of transition where people would be welcomed and directed towards their final destination, mirroring the way a lobbyist tries to steer the contents of a debate or piece of legislation during a period of transition.

The values of openness and transparency fuelling the project manifested in different ways across the spaces I shot. At times, I felt degrees of discomfort. I had to interrupt meetings and bother people at work. The spaces in the images may seem desolate, but they were either taken at a strategically timed moment of the day, or shot in between times when people move through the space. Whilst photographing, I had people looking over my shoulders to keep an eye on me, interested in how I would portray their organisation’s identity. One industry representative noted he “wouldn’t dare interfere with my creative process”, but wanted to let me know that he was quite happy with the office’s poster exhibiting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

In other cases, I had the freedom to roam around freely. I appreciated the way some were so considerate as to share with me the best time of day to take the photograph depending on when the sun would hit the lobby. One lobbyist even described the lobby playing field using a photographic metaphor: “There are many different players seeking to influence the process and its outcome. You have the member states, the political families in the European Parliament, the regions, lots of different interest groups, and they often collaborate as coalitions or establish networks, the composition of which changes depending on the issue. It’s a one big multilayered photograph really.”

Some lobbies were easier to access than others. I was invited to do phone interviews to determine whether I was out to blame or shame the organisation in any way, and to face-to-face meetings to lay out my background and approach. At times, I wrote lengthy answers providing more details about my intentions. Sometimes I had to respond to a specific list of questions. Who is financing my project? Do I work with Corporate Europe Observatory (a group of transparency activists)? Why us? Which other organisations are part of the project? Where will the work be shown? Will you use text? The public image of lobbying played a role in deciding whether to participate or not, but only one organisation explicitly denied access out of a fear of being perceived as rich and powerful.

One director general of an industry association regarded my request as “quite provocative”, and asked me: “with what right have you become the judge of openness and transparency?” But I was never out to pass judgement; I was merely curious to see what would happen if I asked various interest groups if I could take a photograph on the other side of their office facade. Mine was an exercise in extending the concept of openness and transparency to the physical office space, and gauging the willingness of these groups to engage with an artist's request regarding lobby transparency and revealing themselves to the public. What kind of image would emerge? How would such photographs allow viewers to consider the implications of what happens in these spaces on the society that we all live in? And after answering the question, I received a warm welcome to take the photograph in the end.

Part One of this book presents the results of my request. Organised alphabetically following the categories of the EU Transparency Register, a photograph is presented for each organisation that welcomed me into their office, allowing the public to take a look inside. For every organisation that would not grant me access – whether by expressing a particular reason or by not responding to the request at all – I have created an ‘empty’ image. All images are accompanied by a phrase indicating the type of interests that the organisation represents and its Transparency Register Identification Number. Information about each lobby is taken from this register and included in Part Two of the book: the Index.

The Index presents us with an image of how organisations see and describe themselves. Every lobby has an entry in which they report their goals, personnel and financial expenditures. Here, I track the type of contact I have had with each interest group and how long it took to respond to my initial request, to set up a meeting and, when relevant, to approve the photograph. For those that declined, I quote their reasons for not participating. This section also contains a timeline of the Green Deal initiatives and the list of meetings that the interest representatives have had with the selected officials.

The list discloses the topics of those meetings, but the exact contents of the discussions remain difficult to trace – as does the real impact of influence on the final outcome of the decisions. Instead, LOBBY offers a view into a largely unknown and distant world of power and influence to the wider public, fixing an ephemeral moment of access into that world. It functions as an invitation to look inside and navigate a labyrinth of lobbies to see who is influencing policy-making at a time when climate change is permeating all domains of society. Above all, it is a reminder to those in power, and those with power, that the public is watching.

Suzanne Schols

Brussels / The Hague
July 2023