Capturing the Lingering Effects of the Mafia in Modern-Day Sicily

We spoke to Sicilian photographer Mimi Mollica about power, corruption, murder, and merchandise.

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Mar 8 2017, 7:05pm

Mimi Mollica is an Italian (or more accurately a Sicilian) photographer from Palermo, though he now lives in London. Over the past seven years, he has been documenting the effect the Cosa Nostra has had on his home nation and tried to capture the sun-kissed pain of those who still feel the punch of this bloody and violent local history.

In his new book, Terra Nostra, he shows us the faces of those who survived, and the hopeful smiles of those who didn't live through the peak of the turbulence, but are still somewhat shaken by its effects.

I spoke to Mollica about the book, Godfather-branded T-shirts, and the societal dynamics of power in a place filled with terrible corruption.

VICE: Tell me more about the name of the book, Terra Nostra.
Mimi Mollica: Terra Nostra literally means "our land," and it's a deliberate evocation and reference to Cosa Nostra, which is the name of the Sicilian Mafia. I named it this because the book is a personal journey back to the country I left and a documentary on the legacy of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily that has exploited our land and created a massive difference between us and our landscape—and in society, politics, and the economy. I felt that the Cosa Nostra disowned our land from us, and so I thought "Terra Nostra" would be a provocative title to claim back ownership of it.

I was speaking to a Parisian friend not long ago who said he felt it was hard for new culture to emerge from Paris because of the imposition of the history of the place. Do you feel the same about Sicily—a past that isn't allowed to be forgotten or moved on from?
That's a very interesting perspective. I think it plays a very important role in how societies find cohesion, and if you look up some of the 1960s and 70s housing projects with a high density of Mafia, you will see that one is exactly built with a kind of model without any infrastructure, and foreign to the real heart of the city. This creates alienation and isolation somehow, and is of course more prone to create division rather than cohesion. This is something that Mafia culture, if not provoked consciously, found amazing advantages in.

Is there a collective trauma in the people of Sicily as a result of the Cosa Nostra and its crimes?
I think so. I don't know how conscious this would be, or in whom this could appear clear in the mind. There are definitely the signs of a traumatized society—this is pretty much what my pictures are about. You have some people who belong to a luckier, if you like, layer of society of people who discarded the culture and know about things that are clearly referring to the Mafia and Cosa Nostra as a traumatic element in our history. Then there are other people who are more involved in it as victims, or participants of the underworld, who more directly feel the impact of it and have fewer barriers to defend themselves from it. But they wouldn't necessarily have the cultural nous to break these things down, if you know what I mean. Overall, I think this is a traumatized society, and this is one of the main points I try to convey with my work. I'm glad you asked me that question because, to me, it is fundamental.

Following on from that, we did an interview with the photographer Letizia Battaglia last year, who of course has focused a lot on the Mafia, and I asked her the same question I'll ask you now: Do you get a sense that the people of Sicily, who have been ruled over constantly for many years, are happier under the jackboot of oppression?
I don't know if you can define them as "happier," but being a Sicilian myself, I have observed and thought about how power is articulated into the history of Sicily. If you notice, Sicilians look up to people and institutions that represent the power. The power is something to be feared, but also could allow you favors, and [those in power might share] some of the wealth.

In a nutshell, I would say there is this kind of medieval relationship with power. You can see that with how corruption has flourished in Sicily, the power is used with a discriminatory and egoistic attitude. There's a picture I've taken that illustrates it pretty loudly. It's a picture of a [church representative] holding an umbrella for a politician to shield him from the rain. There you can see the servitude toward power. Power is seen as more of a favor than something you are actually entitled to have. That goes with jobs, social inclusion, for money, for opportunity. We haven't really found emancipation from the obscene aspects of the darkest power that is still hijacking our democracy.

In one of the images there's a Godfather T-shirt reflected in a window. How much is the Mafia the subject of tourist merchandise?
This is something that has increased in the last ten years exponentially. When I was little in Palermo ,there were none of these Cosa Nostra, Godfather-branded T-shirts to sell in the souvenir shops. But now, everywhere you go in Sicily, you will find T-shirts, hats, aprons, ashtrays, cups, mugs, glasses, and scarves. The images that have been borrowed back from Hollywood movies. It's something that I find extremely sad because it's a national tragedy and is being defined somehow as a caricature. Mafia shouldn't really be taken so lightly and transformed into a profitable symbol to sell as a souvenir to tourists coming to Sicily. I find it really sad that a phenomenon that has caused death and has meant a general impoverishment of our land and culture is sold as a laughable token to take back once you visited the Island

What perspective does your distance as an expat give you?
The distance gave me the possibility to articulate a deeper understanding of the place I was coming from. Before, I was of course aware of the Mafia and knew of the killings and the tragedies, the legacy, all of this, but I was never really able to put this in a larger perspective. The distance, especially for a photographer, is the first necessity to be able to observe. If you're sitting too close to something, you're not able to see clearly. I'm not saying what I offer is an objective truth, but at least I have been able to gain a kind of vantage point conceptually that allows me to articulate my own thoughts on the legacy of the Cosa Nostra in Sicily.

All photos by Mimi Mollica, whose book Terra Nostra is out now through Dewi Lewis Publishing.

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