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Home World News Washington Post World News Letizia Battaglia, photographer of Sicilian underworld, dies at 87

Letizia Battaglia, photographer of Sicilian underworld, dies at 87

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Letizia Battaglia, a Sicilian photojournalist who risked her life for the brutal crimes of Her Italian island’s infamous Cosa Nostra mafia died on April 13 in Cefalù, near the Sicilian capital Palermo, her hometown. She was 87.

The Associated Press reported her death, citing an announcement by officials including Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando, her longtime friend. The cause was not immediately known.

Mrs. Battaglia, a one-time reporter who only started shooting in 1974, shortly before her 40th birthday, turned her lens on the bloody feuds between the various crime families of Cosa Nostra in Sicily, including the Corleone clan from the small town of that name outside. Palermo.

although Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel “The Godfather” about Don Vito Corleone and the subsequent Francis Ford Coppola “Godfather” movies were fictitious, the Corleonesi were real mafiosi in Sicily, named after their city rather than a family. (The grandparents of actor Al Pacino, who starred in the “Godfather” movies, were from Corleone.)

Ms. Battaglia mainly covered the mutual family feuds by photographing the bodies of their victims. These include 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, Mrs. Battaglia traveled to Corleone and displayed giant prints of her photos of Mafia victims in the main square. Most locals stayed away and stuck to the famous omertà. from the mafia or silence code.

Easily identified by her punky hair, which she has dyed in colors including pink and purple, even later in life, Mrs. Battaglia buzzed on the streets and alleys 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 police officers to arrive at the crime scene, thanks to a scanner tuned to police radio frequencies. She said police officers were disarmed by her presence and that she was able to capture “up close and personal” images, often of corpses 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 for the leftist daily L’Ora in Palermo in 1974. In the following years, she shot about 600,000 images, which she called her “blood archive.” Never switch to color film, she insisted her black and white images, with skillful use of light and shadow, were more effective than color in portraying the blood and death caused by the mafia.

“When you’re shooting the dead, using black and white is a way of being delicate and respectful,” she once told London’s Guardian newspaper. “It creates its own silence and silence was very important to me.”

One of her most famous images shows Sergio Mattarella, the current president of Italy, pulling the body of his brother Piersanti, a Sicilian politician, riddled with bullets, from a car in Palermo in 1980. Another shows a young boy posing as a mafia hit man, who points a toy gun at passersby while wearing a nylon stocking to hide his face, and common practice at the time.

She wanted to show how the deep-rooted influence of the Mafia affected ordinary Sicilian society, especially the youth. Her photos, often first published in L’Ora and picked up by worldwide photo agencies, gradually turned Sicilians against organized crime by showing them that the mafiosi not only kill each other, but also harm and sometimes even harm innocent people on their island. murder.

Mrs. Battaglia’s images were a major influence on what became known as the Palermo Spring in the late 1980s, when many Sicilians dropped the omertà. and took to the streets to denounce the violence of the feuding clans. Mrs. Battaglia and Orlando, the old mayor of Palermo, led the demonstrations.

Mrs. Battaglia called her photos “indictments,” Mrs. Battaglia once told the German news agency DPA: “I am a messenger of resistance, resistance to violence, corruption, poverty, against moral and political chaos.”

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 your friends or enemies were. You came out of the house in the morning and didn’t know if you would come back in the evening. The bosses could blow my head off at any moment.

“When the Police Stopped” [the Mafiosi]“I approached them, as close as I could, to photograph them, in their handcuffs,” said Ms Battaglia. “I wanted the bosses to look me in the eye, even at the cost of spitting in my face.”

The Guardian quoted her as saying that when she attended mafiosi funerals, she would cough every time she took a photo, “so the click of my shutter couldn’t be heard.” Unbeknownst to her, the Sicilian police sometimes used her funeral images to identify other mafiosi and their political and business partners.

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 at 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-20s before leaving her husband in 1971 and moving to Milan to work as a journalist.

In Milan, she met Franco Zecchin, a photographer and fellow 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, Mrs. Battaglia first picked up a camera at the age of 39.

“With this in my hand,” she recalled in a 2019 interview with The Guardian, “I can take on the world.”

One of her first photos for L’Ora was of a Mafioso executed by a rival clan, spread out under an olive tree in rural Sicily. Ms Battaglia told the Guardian in 2019 that 45 years later she could still remember the scent of that day.

“Everyone is equal in death,” she said. “It was very hot and he had been dead for a few days. As soon as you ask for this photo, it will come back to me. I can almost feel this atmosphere of death.”

She hanged her Leica in 1992 after two anti-mafia judges were murdered. She told friends she was shocked and exhausted by the violence, which seemed to have no end.

“Photography doesn’t change anything,” she told The Guardian. “Violence continues, 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 was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Survivors include her daughter Shobha Battaglia, herself a noted photographer and two World Press Photo award winner.

After retiring as a photojournalist, Ms. Battaglia continued as a member of the Green Party at the Palermo City Council and the Sicilian Regional Assembly. Those years were “the worst part of my life, the most humbling,” she told the Sunday Times in London in 2019. “I did nothing and they paid me a fortune. Everything was decided outside and the mafia was still there.”

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