TURIN — Their faces adorn election posters seen throughout the cities of Italy last week, inviting citizens to "vote for them." But the people depicted — Jasvir, Michael, Anayet, Mamhut, Zhang, Rahaman, Viltus, and Ali — are not candidates in the upcoming national elections, on March 4. They're immigrants, from all walks of life, chosen by Italian artists for a public campaign to protest the anti-immigrant rhetoric so prevalent in this election season.

Italians will go to the polls for the first time since an inconclusive vote in 2013 led to a grand coalition between the center-left Democratic Party (PD) and center-right parties under Enrico Letta. The deal collapsed later that year over a tax hike and Letta himself was ousted by PD leader Matteo Renzi in early 2014. Renzi presided over a slow economic recovery from the eurozone crisis, but his tenure also saw a spike in migrant arrivals on Italian shores.

After losing a constitutional referendum on which he'd staked his political future, Renzi resigned in December 2016, and the PD went on to suffer multiple losses at local elections and a debilitating internal schism. As the economic crisis has receded from view, immigration has become the dominant theme of the election, especially in wake of recent events in the central Italian city of Macerata, where the dismembered body of a young woman — 18-year-old Pamela Mastropietro — was discovered on Jan. 31.

The killing shocked the country and led to the arrests of two Nigerian men the next day. Two days later, on Feb. 3, a man named Luca Trani went on a shooting spree in the city, targeting people of African origin and injuring six. During his arrest, Trani — who stood as a candidate for the far-right Northern League in last year's local elections — made the fascist salute and claimed he was avenging Mastropietro's death.

The posters were put up during nighttime "raids" in major Italian cities — Photo: Fabio

The attack was widely condemned, and in Macerata, thousands gathered afterwards for an anti-racist march. Still, Trani's actions drew quiet support from many Italians in an increasingly polarized country. The anti-establishment Five-Star Movement has been gaining in the polls at the expense of the PD, but has itself been eclipsed by the rise of the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia, which have largely campaigned on curbing immigration.

Election posters like those featuring Jasvir and Michael were once the primary form of advertising for Italy's major political parties, but they now do most of their campaigning on social media. The artists behind the pro-immigration posters co-opted the familiar campaign strategy by plastering city walls with the faces of immigrants from multiple backgrounds: recent arrivals from East Asia and Africa; women wearing head veils; young fathers who risked their lives to escape a warzone.

The posters were put up during nighttime "raids" in major Italian cities. Hooded activists armed with paper and glue fanned out across the streets of Trieste and Cagliari, before proceeding to Milan, Rome, Bologna, and elsewhere.

The project was launched by Gianluca Vassallo, a photographer and activist based in Sardinia. He calls the poster campaign a form of "guerrilla art," and he has traveled the country collecting the stories of migrants who fear for their lives in the current xenophobic climate. Some say they're scared to venture outside in Macerata, others that they're forced to sleep on benches in Milan. Numerous immigrants have died as well — of hunger, on the cold streets of Turin, or by drowning on their way to Lampedusa.

"Through the faces and stories of these migrants, we're trying to center the public debate on immigration on individual human lives and dignity," Vassallo says. "These election posters, abandoned by politicians, can become metaphors that represent something else: the lives of agricultural workers, of factory workers, of the elderly who need assistance. They're a metaphor for the hunger we feel for a different future."