Death of Letizia Battaglia, the photographer who depicted the terror of the mafia | Culture

His images are the chronicle of an era strewn with chaos, terror and death. A reflection of the horror and tragedy of one of the bloodiest periods of the Cosa Nostra. Letizia Battaglia, with her rigorous black and white photographs, was the gaze of those leaden years in a Sicily as beautiful, ancient and mysterious as it was cruel. The legendary photographer died on Wednesday in her native Palermo at the age of 87. “It was an internationally recognized symbol in the art world, a flag on the way to the liberation of the city of Palermo from the mafia government,” said the mayor of the Sicilian capital, Leoluca Orlando.

Battaglia became the first female press photographer in Italy. He took the first image of a dead man in 1974, days after joining the newspaper The Ora. “The first homicide never leaves you… It was on the pitch. I started shaking. I had never seen anything like it. When we arrived, the body had been there for several days. The smell was terrible. There was an olive tree and the wind was spreading the smell. I thought the body was going to move. He does not have. It was the beginning of a story that lasted 19 years”, says the artist in the documentary which looks back on his career, The mafia photographer, directed by British documentary filmmaker Kim Longinotto. From that day on, she lived glued to the police radio to always arrive first. His shots go beyond the limits of event photography and become a naturalistic journey into the underworld of a land massacred by the indifference of an absent State which for decades took refuge in geographical remoteness to look away from problems. from South. .

His portraits of everyday life immortalize the idiosyncrasy and harshness of the people of Palermo, with their festivals and traditions and the devastating poverty that suffocated them for so long. For his purpose he spent life and death in Palermo. In his street stories there are ordinary people, prostitutes, children playing with guns on the day of the dead, drug dealers, marginalized transsexuals or historic arrests of capos and the corpses of their victims, who were also part of daily life in the city. . It is a social portrait that emphasizes the most disadvantaged, the oppressed by omerta and in the wake of poverty and marginalization left by the mafia and corruption.

One of his flagship photos of Letizia Battaglia. Giorgio Mattarella, current President of the Italian Republic, pulling his deceased brother Piersanti Mattarella, then President of the Region of Sicily, out of the car after a Cosa Nostra attack on Three Kings Sunday 1980.

Letizia Battaglia

Critics have noted his ability to capture drama and pain in his photographs, but always respectfully, without falling into clichés and avoiding the dramatization that often accompanies depictions of the mafia world. One of his iconic photos is of Giorgio Mattarella, current President of the Italian Republic, pulling his deceased brother Piersanti, then President of the Region of Sicily, out of the car after a Cosa Nostra attack on Three Kings Sunday in 1980.

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With his photographs, he confronted the gangsters with dignity and courage. “Fight, fight for something” was his slogan. Hundreds of images support it. Like the emblematic cliché that overflows with contained fury of the arrest of mafia boss Leoluca Bagarella in 1979, a key moment in the history of the Sicilian criminal organization. Battaglia was so close with her camera that the inmate managed to kick her and knock her to the ground. At the funeral, where he met members of Cosa Nostra, he was coughing as he took the picture, so the click wouldn’t be heard.

Armed with a camera to shake consciences, she remained committed to the fight against the mafia, inside and outside the newspaper, at least until 1992, the year of the murders of judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. , one of the most dramatic pages in history. .. recent in Italy and which shocked the country forever. As she herself explained, tired of the violence, she put her career as a photojournalist on hold and focused on other outreach and awareness-raising activities. In 2017 he participated in the creation of the International Center of Photography of Palermo, a historical archive that brings together the photos of more than 150 photographers, professionals and amateurs, who show their vision of the city to the national and international public, so that these testimonies can be preserved in the future.

A woman mourns the body of a relative in Palermo.
A woman mourns the body of a relative in Palermo.LETIZIA BATTAGLIA

“How is it possible that while they were killing us in Palermo, the state didn’t help us? How is it possible that a state with three types of police cannot catch up with the four capos it had in the 1950s? A government would never, never… accept it, if it weren’t for its own benefit. They wanted to have a poor and ignorant south that would vote for the government parties. The mafia forced the poor to vote for these politicians”, he explained recently in an interview with this newspaper.

Letizia Battaglia was much more than “the mafia photographer”, as critics dubbed her, or “photographer against the mafia”, as she preferred. Her photos were quickly recognized outside Sicily and in 1980, her “balloon girl”, in the Palermitan district of Cala, went around the world. In 1985, she was the first European woman to receive, along with the American Donna Ferrato, the Eugene Smith Prize in New York, an international tribute created in memory of the famous photographer from Life.

Battaglia often repeated that his favorite characters were the women and girls, especially the poor, whom he saw in the most abandoned streets of his city and with whom, as he said, he often identified and had a feeling of complicity. : “The absolute protagonists of my photos are women. The men are only there because they are killed, arrested or brought to justice,” he said.

She also repeatedly reported that from an early age she felt the need to assert herself as a person, without the limitations imposed by being a woman. In search of this independence and fleeing the repression of a patriarchal society, she marries very young and separates from her husband who does not let her study, at a time when divorce is still considered a scandal. Always combative, she never bows, as she says herself “neither in the face of arrogance nor injustice”.

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