by Sukanya DebSep 09, 2022
Famed Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, renowned for her work demonstrating the mafia and their victims in Sicily, passed away at the age of 87. Her work was predominantly monochromatic and investigated the everyday lives of those who lived in Palermo’s poor neighbourhoods, where Cosa Nostra bosses held sway. Battaglia snapped Sicilians in instances of sorrow and bliss. She would carry her Leica camera on a Vespa scouring the alleyways of Palermo photographing the victims of mafia killings, their internal matters that would often lead to war between the rival clans during the 1970s and 1980s. She captured the realistic life of the mafia, from a boy enacting "hitman" by sporting a nylon stocking over his head and holding a toy gun to a grieving widow of a Mafia victim. Her intrusion would trigger the mafia, and Battaglia would often receive numerous death threats.
"I did what I could to shake consciences by showing not only violent deaths but also the poverty caused by the Mafia," Battaglia once said. Born and raised in postwar Palermo in northern Italy, Battaglia got married at the age of sixteen and had three daughters. But after her divorce and a three-year stopover in Milan, she returned to Sicily with her longtime partner, Franco Zecchin. Hired by a Sicilian newspaper to work in Palermo, Battaglia's work was also published by major Italian newsweekly magazines, L'Espresso and Panorama.
Battaglia captured astonishing transgressive images of bodies taken in 2019 that were featured in a documentary about her life titled ‘Shooting the Mafia’. One of her renowned images was that of the body of Sicily’s assassinated governor being held hostage by his brother who would be elected Italy’s president 35 years later. According to reports, 'Battaglia rushed to the site of a lethal shooting of a man in a car and began capturing it through her lens, unaware of who the victim was.' She later got to know the fact that the deceased was the governor, Piersanti Mattarella, and the person who held his body as it was taken out of the car was his brother, Sergio. When questioned frequently about that photograph, Battaglia would state that the image represented a moment of hope as Sergio Mattarella would have the resolve and courage to follow a political career and later hold Italy's highest office.
Another photo that she captured was of a girl, cleaning dishes in a home fallen into poverty, where there was just a toilet bowl in the kitchen. Other photographs show couples embracing at the beach.
Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo, and the photographer’s dear friend said, “Palermo has lost an extraordinary woman. Letizia Battaglia was an internationally recognised symbol in the art world. She was an extraordinary person who made visible what was invisible.”
A woman in what was traditionally a man's world, Battaglia made a name for herself. Her work was exhibited in numerous solo exhibitions and has been part of various documentaries. An activist and advocate for women’s rights, she brought the broken pieces of the world together through her work and spirit. Having been ill for some time lately, Battaglia left the world on Wednesday in the Sicilian capital, prompting an outpouring of tributes on social media.
Text by Vatsala Sethi, Assistant Editorial Coordinator (Arts)