Obituary: Letizia Battaglia, photographer who depicted the murderous excesses of the Sicilian mafia

Letizia Battaglia, who died at the age of 87, was a Sicilian photographer whose unflinching photographs depicting appalling Mafia crimes helped combat her campaign of terror on the island in the 1970s and 1980s.

he was perhaps an unlikely thorn in the side of organized crime. Her photographic career began in the early 1970s, when, divorced and single mother of three daughters, she joined the team of the left-wing Sicilian daily The Ora. The newspaper had itself been the target of a mafia bombing campaign. In two decades she has produced more than half a million images covering every aspect of Sicilian life, from children playing gangsters in the squares to lovers kissing in the countryside. But it was his images of the havoc wrought by the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, that made him famous.

Weaving through the streets of Palermo on her Vespa, armed only with a Leica, she captured the aftermath of shootings, with figures slumped in cars and on sidewalks, and bombings of galleries and churches . During arrests, she got as close as possible to the culprits to show them handcuffed. She photographed hundreds of bodies – of judges, prosecutors and witnesses executed as well as those killed in feuds – as well as the trauma of families caught in the chaos.

In a country where political and criminal cliques intertwine, often with deadly results, his photos provided an important record. One of his snaps, showing Giulio Andreotti, a former Italian prime minister, with mafia associate Nino Salvo, was to prove crucial in Andreotti’s corruption trial in 1993. Another, from from 1980, showed Sergio Mattarella, President of Italy, holding the body of his brother Piersanti, then President of Sicily. She once described her photos as “indictments”.

With his fearless point of view and heavy monochrome, his work echoes the approach of the post-war neo-realist movement, in which the poetic retreated into the brutal. One of his most famous photographs is that of the corpse of Giuseppe Lo Baido, taken in an alleyway in Palermo in 1977. The victim is in the foreground, face down, the alleyway rising to a line of high horizon.

It is as striking in its composition as it is appalling in its subject matter. What is remarkable is the closeness and immediacy of Battaglia’s frame, as if she had arrived on the scene before the Carabinieri. The blood is still wet.

Letizia Battaglia was born on March 5, 1935 in Palermo. At 16, she ran away and married Ignazio Stagnitta, an older man. The couple divorced in 1971 and Letizia moved to Milan to start a career in journalism, first as a writer. There she meets her longtime partner, Franco Zecchin.

Together they moved to Palermo, where she took her first professional photographs when she was 40 years old. In 1979, she put herself in the crosshairs by showing monumental engravings of Mafia victims in the central square of Corleone, the town made famous by Mario. Puzo’s novel The Godfather. By the time The Ora closed in 1990, Letizia
Battaglia was the newspaper’s veteran photo editor. By then she had also entered the political fray; she represented the Green Party in the city council and in the Sicilian regional assembly. His photo books include Passion, Justice, Freedom — Photographs of Sicily (2003) and The duty to report (2006). She made an appearance as a photographer in Wim Wenders’ drama Filming Palermo (2008) and in 2019 a feature documentary, shoot the mafiawas made about him.

With thousands of Mafiosi behind bars, in recent years she has seen her once violent city experience a renaissance. In 2018, Palermo became the Italian Capital of Culture.
She is survived by her daughters, one of whom is Shobha Battaglia, herself a successful photographer.

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