Letizia Battaglia: Photographer Who Documented Mafia Carnage
Letizia Battaglia, a Sicilian photojournalist who risked her life to document the brutal crimes of her Italian island‘s infamous Cosa Nostra Mafia, has died aged 87.
Battaglia, a journalist who only started taking pictures in 1974, shortly before her 40th birthday, focused her lens on the bloody feuds between the various Cosa Nostra crime families in Sicily, including the Corleone clan of the small town of the same name outside Palermo.
Although Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel The Godfather about Don Vito Corleone and later Francis Ford Coppola Godfather films were fictionalized, the Corleonesi were real mafiosi in Sicily, named after their town rather than a family. (The grandparents of actor Al Pacino, who starred in the Godfather films, were from Corleone.)
Battaglia covered interfamily feuds primarily by photographing the bodies of their victims. These included rival mafiosi, corrupt politicians, businessmen and often innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
In 1979, well aware that she was putting her life on the line, Battaglia traveled to Corleone and exhibited giant prints of her photographs of Mafia victims in the main square. Most of the locals stayed away, joining the notorious mafias omertaor code of silence.
Easily recognizable by her punky hair, which she dyed in colors such as pink and purple, Battaglia cruised the streets and alleyways of Palermo on an Italian Vespa scooter, her Leica dangling from her neck, a cigarette between her lips.
She was often the first person after the police to arrive at crime scenes, thanks to a scanner tuned to police radio frequencies. She said officers were disarmed by her presence and allowed her to get “up close and personal” footage, often of dead bodies lying in pools of blood.
She was one of the first female photographers to work for an Italian newspaper when she first picked up a camera in 1974 for the left-leaning daily The Ora in Palermo. Over the next few years, she took around 600,000 images, which she called her “blood archive.” Never switching to color film, she insisted that her black-and-white images, with skillful use of light and shadow, were more effective than color in depicting the blood and death caused by the mafia.
“When shooting dead people, using black and white is a way to be delicate, respectful,” she once said. The Guardian. “It creates its own silence, and silence was very important to me.”
One of his best-known images shows Sergio Mattarella, the current Italian president, pulling the bullet-riddled body of his brother Piersanti, a Sicilian politician, from a car in Palermo in 1980. Another shows a young boy pretending to be a mobster. hitman, pointing a toy gun at passers-by while wearing a nylon stocking to disguise his face, a common practice at the time.
She wanted to show how the Mafia’s deep influence affected ordinary Sicilian society, especially the youth. His photographs, often published for the first time in The Ora and picked up by global photo agencies, gradually turned Sicilians against organized crime by showing them that the Mafiosi not only killed each other but affected, and sometimes even killed, innocent people on their island.
Battaglia’s images had a major influence on what became known as the Palermo Spring in the late 1980s, when many Sicilians abandoned the omerta and took to the streets to denounce the violence of enemy clans. Battaglia and Orlando, longtime mayor of Palermo, were at the forefront of the protests.
Calling her photos “indictments”, Battaglia once told German news agency DPA: “I am a messenger of resistance, resistance against violence, corruption, poverty, against chaos moral and political”.
In a 2017 interview with The Guardian, she called the Mafia’s reign of terror in the 1980s the “terrible years.” You no longer knew who were your friends or your enemies. In the morning, you left the house and did not know if you would come back in the evening. The bosses could blow my head off at any time.
“When the police arrested [the Mafiosi]I approached them, as close as possible, to photograph them, handcuffed,” Battaglia said. “I wanted the bosses to look me in the eye, even if it meant spitting in my face.”
The Guardian quoted her as saying that when she attended Mafiosi’s funeral, she coughed every time she took a picture, “so my shutter click couldn’t be heard”. Unbeknownst to him, the Sicilian police sometimes used his funeral images to identify other mafiosi and their political and business associates.
Letizia Battaglia was born in Palermo on March 5, 1935 and moved with her parents to northern Italy as a child. She said her childhood was “happy and carefree” until a man exposed himself to her on the street. Her father then demanded that she stay home, a restriction that led to her running away at age 16 with an older man, Ignazio Stagnitta.
She had three daughters by the time she was in her mid-twenties before leaving her husband in 1971 and moving to Milan to work as a journalist.
In Milan, she meets Franco Zecchin, photographer and anti-mafia activist. They moved to Battaglia’s native Sicily in 1974, where she was hired by The Ora. Inspired by the work of American photographer Diane Arbus, Battaglia first picked up a camera at age 39.
“With this in my hand,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with The Guardian“I can take over the world.”
One of his first photos for The Ora was about a mobster who had been executed by a rival clan, discarded under an olive tree in the Sicilian countryside. Battaglia said she still remembers the smell of that day 45 years later.
“Everyone is equal in death,” she said. “It was very hot and he had been dead for a few days. Now, as soon as you ask about this photograph, it comes back to me. I can almost smell it, this atmosphere of death.
She hung up her Leica in 1992 after two anti-mafia judges were murdered. She told friends she was shocked and exhausted by the violence, which never seemed to end.
“Photography doesn’t change anything,” she said The Guardian. “The violence continues, the poverty continues, children are still being killed in stupid wars.”
British filmmaker Kim Longinotto told Battaglia’s story in a 2019 documentary shoot the mafiawhich screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
Survivors include her daughter Shobha Battaglia, herself a well-known photographer and two-time World Press Photo award winner.
After retiring as a photojournalist, Battaglia went on to serve as a Green Party member of the Palermo city council and the Sicilian regional assembly. Those years were “the worst part of my life, the most humbling,” she said. The Sunday Times in 2019. “I did nothing and they paid me a fortune. Everything was decided outside, and the mafia was still there.
Letizia Battaglia, photographer, born March 5, 1935, died April 13, 2022
© The Washington Post