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Letizia Battaglia, the first photojournalist who “shot” the mafia

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At the end of his days, Letizia Battaglia He was still fighting. Pink hair, short, with a resolute and argumentative verb, with a camera hanging around her neck, she is ready to hunt in fractions of a second what her lively eyes detected. In a way, the Italy’s first female photojournalist changed the course of that country’s history with his photos, and to think that he came to photography out of necessity.

In Milan, where he had taken refuge after a nervous breakdown, leaving his family and Palermo, he says that he began to write for a local newspaper. “Everytime that I was delivering an article and they asked me where are the photos?”, narrated a winter morning in Berlin in 2019.

“I looked for a little camera and that’s how I started photographing, so I came to photography, not as an escape route or out of passion, circumstances forced me to pay the rent and bills,” he summarizes, making the story epic.

He said his love for images had come to him over time, “that’s why I began to educate myself by watching books, to closely observe the greats of photography such as Diane Arbus (1923-1971)”.

To tell about Letizia Battaglia is to immerse yourself in a fascinating and inspiring story, marked by a constant struggle. As a woman, born in Sicily in 1935, she broke conventions, pulverized the iron patriarchal structures of a time in which she was expected as a woman to fulfill the plan of home, husband, children and church. She half complied because she rebelled and emancipated herself.

As a photographer, a profession she began at the age of 40, she also had to struggle, almost living up to her last name. Back to Palermo and employed at the communist philosophy evening L’Ora, as the only woman on the team, encountered hostility among her coworkers. “They treated me badly, I felt that my male colleagues were somewhat afraid of me because I reacted, I didn’t stay silent,” he recalled.

Living in Palermo in the 70s and 80s, with Cosa Nostra doing its thing, I would soon see the fangs of the maximum expression of violence and the deep-rooted sexist society. He shot at the mafia and the countless and unspeakable havoc generated in his wake with your analog SLR.

Image from ‘Shooting the mafia’.


“I look at my photos and what I see is blood, blood, blood…” he narrated in the documentary film Shooting the Mafia (The mafia photographer, 2019), by Kim Longinotto. It tells the life and work of this armed woman who, a few weeks ago, pressed the shutter button on her camera for the last time. She was 87 years old.

Letizia had seen too much, “horrible things, horrible things,” she repeated with her eyes fixed on me that day in Berlin, for there to be no doubt about the horror captured in black and white, in an intentional bichrome as a show of respect for the victims. of the mafia captured by his lens.

Letizia, who received countless death threats, I might as well make a treatise on fear. In the documentary Shooting the Mafia He describes it as a luxury that he did not have, and it sounds paradoxical if you think that Cosa Nostra were experts in creating that thousand-headed monster with deeds and blood.

“I did not let myself be dominated by fear, and that is because I can’t even say that I had courage.”, he dared to analyze, “it was simply about this device (points to the camera hanging around his neck) and me taking photographs. Then what happened in front of me, well, it happened.”

Broken inside

Staying in front holding his camera said he owed it to madness. But his is a special dementia that consists of “having the courage to live and do what you want. Madness prevents your scruples from dominating you, it prevents you from blocking yourself, from being ‘well thought out’, that is, a bourgeoisie in your head, false, stupid.”

Letizia Battaglia’s photos bore witness to the brutal murders of Cosa Nostra. They are put in bloody scenes, shocking images whose inventory exceeds 600 thousand.

If he remembered a particular photo, he didn’t hesitate. Describes that of a boy of about 12 years old who, when his father witnessed the murder, was also killed. “It was a photo that I never wanted to publish, although I was aware that I should not hide the truth, with that child a strange modesty arose in me. Don’t know…”.

Image of one of the countless murders photographed by Battaglia.


However, he says that he always found the strength to activate the trigger, “always!” he emphasizes. “My desire to photograph the world prevailed, as well as the need to show reality. There are things that have stayed with me for life, both great lessons and horrible memories. “When I took photos of all those horrors, when terror reigned in the city, we all fucked, made love, ate, drank… In fact, Falcone was practically killed while fucking.”

Ah, Falcone! Giovanni Falcone the judge who stood up to the mafia and paid with his life for it in May 1992. Remembering it, Letizia’s voice grows heavy. “She was a person she knew and appreciated very much. Then there was the murder of another jurist, Paolo Borsellino, who was one of the last murdered in our history (in July 1992). I did not photograph either of them.”

If nothing and no one stopped Battaglia, these two murders, especially that of Falcone, generated a turning point in his life. “With those deaths we had lost hope. I felt tired, desperate, broken inside. And it’s not that I was tired of photographing, for years we had fought against the mafia and at that moment we lost the battle.

It is not an exaggeration when it is said that Letizia Battaglia’s photographs changed the history of Italy. On the one hand, she made the horror visible, on the other – and more due to luck – His lens captured influential politicians in the company of gangsters.

“I think the mafia doesn’t care much about photography, but they do care when people speak and write against them. I even think they like to be photographed because they are very vain people,” he described.

Letizia’s life continued on other fronts. She insisted on searching for beauty, photographing women and children; He also embarked on a political career in the ranks of the Greens, he deployed his social activism and created a cultural center to bring photography closer to the young people of Palermo.

“That is a way to fight against the mafia,” she was proud from the present, also thinking about that place abandoned by the permission of the gods, but which she never wanted to leave again because she said that her life was there.

After more than four decades, Cosa Nostra is still there like the dinosaur. Now it is more “modern”, diversified in its businesses, supported by a dangerous halo of glamorization, but above all, with strengthened tentacles within political and judicial institutions. The terror continues, “now there is silence,” she expressed bitterly.

At the end of her life, with pink hair, Letizia still had the desire to continue fighting, exactly to make a revolution.

“I cannot end my life after such a prolonged struggle,” he reflected, “but I am aware that I will never know if we win the fight against the mafia or if we destroy the planet. Look, the mafia is like when we throw plastic into the sea: it ends up coming out anywhere in the world or in the stomach of a fish that has eaten it. “That’s the mafia.”

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