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

Letizia Battaglia got to see her home city of Palermo enjoy a renaissance

Letizia Battaglia, who has died aged 87, was a Sicilian photographer whose unflinching photographs depicting the appalling crimes of the Mafia helped to combat its campaign of terror on the island during the 1970s and 1980s.

She was perhaps an unlikely thorn in the side of organised crime. Her photographic career began in the early 1970s, when, divorced and a single mother of three daughters, she joined the staff of the Sicilian daily left-wing newspaper L’Ora. The paper had itself been the target of a Mafia bombing campaign. Over two decades, she produced more than half a million images covering all aspects of Sicilian life, from children playing mobsters in the piazzas to lovers kissing in the countryside. But it was her images of the havoc caused by the Sicilian Mafia, known as the Cosa Nostra, that made her name.

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 pavements, and bomb attacks on galleries and churches. At arrests, she got as close as possible to culprits to show them in handcuffs. She photographed hundreds of bodies — executed judges, prosecutors and witnesses as well as those killed in feuds — along with the trauma of families caught up in the mayhem. 

In a country where political and criminal cliques interweave, often with murderous results, her pictures provided an important record. One of her shots, showing Giulio Andreotti, a former prime minister of Italy, in the company of Mafia associate Nino Salvo, was to prove pivotal in Andreotti’s corruption trial in 1993. Another, from 1980, showed Sergio Mattarella, president of Italy, holding the body of his brother Piersanti, at the time the president of Sicily. She once described her pictures as “indictments”.

With its fearless viewpoint and heavy monochrome, her work echoed the approach of the post-war Neo-realist movement, in which the poetic folded into the brutal. One of her most famous photographs was of the corpse of Giuseppe Lo Baido, shot in a Palermo alley in 1977. The victim is in the foreground, face down, with the alley rising to a high horizon line.

It is as striking in its composition as it is ghastly in its subject. What is remarkable is the proximity and immediacy of Battaglia’s frame, as if she had got to the scene before the Carabinieri. The blood is still wet.

Letizia Battaglia was born on March 5, 1935 in Palermo. Aged 16, she eloped and married Ignazio Stagnitta, an older man. The couple divorced in 1971 and Letizia moved to Milan to begin a career in journalism, initially as a writer. There she met her long-term partner, Franco Zecchin.

Together they moved to Palermo, where she took her first professional photographs just as she was turning 40. In 1979 she put herself in the firing line when she showed monumental prints of Mafia victims in the central square in Corleone, the town made famous by Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. By the time L’Ora closed in 1990, Letizia
Battaglia was the paper’s veteran photo editor. By then she had also entered the political fray; she represented the Green Party on the city council and the Sicilian regional assembly. Her photobooks include Passion, Justice, Freedom — Photographs of Sicily (2003) and The Duty to Report (2006). She made a cameo appearance as a photographer in Wim Wenders’s drama Shooting Palermo (2008) and in 2019 a feature-length documentary, Shooting the Mafia, was made about her.

With thousands of Mafiosi put behind bars, in recent years she got to see her once violent city enjoy a renaissance. In 2018, Palermo was made 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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