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Battaglia's photographs of Sicily: shame into hope

Letizia Battaglia recorded the Mafia violence that defined Palermo’s darkest years, while fighting for change through her work as a photojournalist, politician, environmentalist and human rights activist

Letizia Battaglia never lost hope. As director of photography for L’Ora, Palermo’s now defunct left-wing daily newspaper, she chronicled the city’s descent into urban warfare. From 1978 to 1992 the Mafia murdered virtually every public official in Sicily who interfered with their business. At the same time, a new family from the town of Corleone initiated the bloodiest internal power struggle the Mafia had ever seen, which led to the death or disappearance of some 1,000 members of rival families. Innocent bystanders were often caught in the crossfire. Battaglia was there, at the scene of every major murder in Palermo, sometimes visiting up to five in one day. The pictures she took have come to represent, not only Palermo and the Mafia, but also Sicily and its unique culture to the rest of the world.

Battaglia describes the effects of the Mafia violence on the streets of Palermo as comparable to “being in the middle of a revolution.” People were terrified. And in a society where omertà had long prevailed, few protested against the violence. But Battaglia and her long-time partner, the photographer Franco Zecchin, decided to speak out. “Our idea was just to put photographs up everywhere, in a militant way, in piazzas, in schools, in the streets... Photography had an impact on the war,” says Zecchin.

The photographs helped awaken and then fuel public outrage against the violence of the mafiosi and against the politicians who protected them, becoming part of a larger, political battle that Battaglia and a handful of others were fighting. In 1985 Battaglia won a seat on the Palermo city council for the Green Party. She has also served in the Sicilian Parliament and was the city administrator for “urban livability”, a department created for her by the then mayor, Leoluca Orlando.

The risks of such public defiance were high. Battaglia received death threats and she was advised to stop taking photos by Giovanni Falcone, the anti-mafia prosecutor and judge. But she continued.

She says she found hope in small demonstrations of courage. When Judge Falcone was assassinated in 1992, “The word spread quickly that whoever was against the Mafia should hang out a sheet.... On the [first] anniversary [of the assassination]we went into a risky neighbourhood... And every now and then you saw a window open a crack, and a woman would pretend to shake out the crumbs from a white tablecloth, and you would see the woman. We called out to her in force, and then she would withdraw, but she had done it!”

The thousands of photographs of ordinary life on the streets of Palermo, of children and women, of religious festivals and processions, are an important counterpoint to Battaglia’s Mafia reportage. They are her tribute to the spirit of Palermo and to the ability of people to carry on in the most adverse circumstances.

Now that her days as a professional photographer and politician are behind her, Battaglia is working in Palermo’s prison to help convicts prepare for their return to society, the very same men she helped put behind bars. “Even the rights of the mafiosi must be respected,” she says.

o An exhibition of Letizia Battaglia’s photographs (16 October to 31 December) is at Aperture’s Burden Gallery, 20 East 23rd Street, New York. Prints are available for sale. For information: % +1 (212) 505 5555 ext.325; www.aperture.org

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Shame into hope'