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In Memoriam : Letizia Battaglia (1935-2022) by John Devos

Letizia Battaglia, photographer of life and death in Sicily

Letizia Battaglia, photographer, died on Wednesday, April 13th in her beloved Palermo.

When we look back on our lives, for most of us it is quite a feat to have moved a single stone in the stream. Only few however, realized what she did. Non-conformist, intellectual, photo-reporter with a broad interest in literature and poetry, in art and heritage, but above all in people, in the weak, in justice.

Born in 1935, married at 16, as a mother of 3 daughters she started working for the left-wing newspaper l’Ora in 1969. She worked there as the only woman among her male colleagues in a patriarchal society. Shortly afterwards she divorced and left for Milan with her three children. She became friends with PP Pasolini, photographed celebrities like Ezra Pound, Franca Rame & Dario Fo but mainly documents the turmoil of the Dark Years.

In 1974 she returned to Palermo with her partner, the photographer Franco Zecchin. There they founded the agency Informazione Fotografia, which was visited by Josef Koudelka & Ferdinando Scianna, and was a training school for a large number of young photographers.

She joined l’Ora  again until the newspaper closed in 1992. She was soon confronted with crime in her surroundings. Sometimes she photographed 4 to 5 murders a day – which is why she described her images as an ‘Archive of Blood’.

You could compare her to Weegee, as she also listened to the messages on the police frequency and then drove her Vespa to the crime scene. More than once, she was the first one on the scene: this was also the case at the execution of the President of the Sicily Region Piersanti Mattarella (1935) on January 6th 1980, who is seen as he is taken out of the car by his younger brother Sergio (1941) – the current President of Italy.

She saw her mission as documenting reality, to bring about change – and sometimes (she said it unpretentiously) the result was also a good image. Her images are exclusively black and white; colour did not fascinate her, and the digital put her off. She almost exclusively used a wide-angle, it forced her to get close to her subject; when she photographsed the arrest of the raging mafia thug Leoluca Bagarella, he gave her a kick. Her approach pushes both the photographer and us, the viewer, close to the gruesome reality. She herself said about that period: the smell of blood will always stay with me.

She realised that crime was actually a mirror of her world, that the Mafia can only flourish in a world of silence that confirms social inequality and poverty. She therefore documented that world from the inside, she exposed the links are between the ruling class and the world of crime. Her archives show, for example, how Prime Minister Andreotti repeatedly met leaders of the Cosa Nostra, people he claimed not to know.

The social reality is the second constant in her work. Most of the time she photographed people and human relationships. Only rarely men (not a good subject, she thought), mostly women (she recognised herself in them). Take a look at her photos of children: they too reflect society, the girls weighed down by the darkness of silence, the boys with the toy guns.

The third part is the Sicilian world, with again the people at the centre. The grandeur, but also the misery, the traditions but also the fleeting, celebrations but also funerals, the processions & the weddings.

The impact of her images is immense: it shatters the illusion that Mafia crimes are only an occasional affair. The criminal organisation is everywhere, in every aspect of life. Battaglia not only documented, she also chose the path of confrontation. For example, she hanged enlarged images of massacres in the marketplace of the village of Corleone, where one of the crime families lives. She was repeatedly threatened, but continued to work with the same energy. Only when her friends, the investigating judges Falcone and Borsellino, were murdered, did she cease her activities against the Cosa Nostra and focused more on her political and cultural activities.

She had been active in the municipal council since 1985, but then followed mandates in the regional parliament and other political institutions. She went to the barricades for the protection of the historic centre of Palermo, for more greenery in the living environment.

She founded a publishing house and from 2000 for three years headed a bi-monthly magazine Mezzocielo aimed at women.

Finally in 2017, she founded the International Centre dedicated to Photography of Palermo: a museum, but also – how could it be otherwise – a place for developing young talent. It is also the repository for her archives with over 500,000 photos.

She has received worldwide recognition: she was the first European woman to receive, ex aequo with Donna Ferrato, the Eugene Smith Prize in 1985, as well as the Erich Salomon Preis (2007) and the Cornell Capa Infinity Award from ICP (2009).

She seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Sicily and Palermo that she described as

Palermo is a bit magical, a bit deprived, a little bit solemn, it is life and death

Twice she left the city briefly, twice she returned quickly. For almost the entirety of her political career, she sat on the city council with Leoluca Orlando (the current mayor of Palermo). He commented on her death as follows:

We have lost an extraordinary woman, a point of reference. Letizia Battaglia was an internationally recognised symbol in the world of art, a key figure on the path to freeing the   city of Palermo from the domination of the mafia.

We are losing a great woman, an example of how photography truly can change the world.


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