Sicilian underworld photographer Letizia Battaglia dies at 87
Ms Battaglia, a former 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 that name outside. Palermo.
Although Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel “The Godfather” about Don Vito Corleone and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” that followed the 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” movies, were from Corleone.)
Ms. Battaglia covered inter-family 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 risking her life, Ms Battaglia traveled to Corleone and displayed giant prints of her photographs of Mafia victims in the main square. Most locals stayed away, adhering to the notorious mafia omertà, or code of silence.
Easily recognizable by her punky hair, which she dyed in colors including pink and purple still later in life, Mrs. Battaglia traveled the streets and alleys of Palermo on an Italian Vespa scooter, his Leica around his neck, a cigarette between his 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-wing daily L’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 his 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 you’re shooting the dead, using black and white is a way to be delicate, respectful,” she once told London’s Guardian newspaper. “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 bystanders 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 first published in L’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.
Ms. Battaglia’s images had a major influence on what became the Palermo spring of the late 1980s, when many Sicilians abandoned omertà. and took to the streets to denounce the violence of enemy clans. Ms Battaglia and Orlando, longtime mayor of Palermo, were at the forefront of the protests.
Calling her photos “indictments”, Ms Battaglia once told German news agency DPA: “I am a messenger of resistance, resistance against violence, corruption, poverty, against the moral and political chaos”.
In a 2017 interview with the Guardian, she called the Mafia’s reign of terror in the 1980s “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 moment.
“When the police arrested [the Mafiosi]I approached them, as close as possible, to photograph them, handcuffed, “said Ms. Battaglia. “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 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 Ms Battaglia’s native Sicily in 1974, where she was hired by L’Ora. Inspired by the work of American photographer Diane Arbus, Ms Battaglia first picked up a camera aged 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 L’Ora was of a mobster who had been executed by a rival clan, torn under an olive tree in the Sicilian countryside. Ms Battaglia told the Guardian in 2019 that she still remembered 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, whenever 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.
“The photograph doesn’t change anything,” she told the Guardian. “The violence continues, the poverty continues, children are still being killed in stupid wars.”
British filmmaker Kim Longinotto told Ms Battaglia’s story in a 2019 documentary, “Shooting the Mafia”, which 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, Ms Battaglia went on to serve as a Green Party member of Palermo City Council and the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Those years were “the worst part of my life, the most humiliating,” she told The Sunday Times of London in 2019. “I didn’t do anything and they paid me a fortune. is decided outside and the mafia was still there.