Travel

Letizia Battaglia on Photographing Sicily's Mafia Men and the Pain They Caused

We spoke to the octogenarian photojournalist about her life behind the camera.

by Joe Bish
Apr 18 2016, 6:20pm

Letizia Battaglia (portrait by Giulia Mariani). All other photos courtesy of Letizia Battaglia and DRAGO Publishing

Since 1971, Letizia Battaglia has documented the rich, dangerous, and sun-bathed lives of the people of Sicily's capital, Palermo. For years she worked as a photojournalist for the now-defunct newspaper L'Ora, but packed it in when the paper closed.

At 81, Battaglia is ready to share her stunning archive of photos in her new book, Anthology. The collection—made up of more than 300 pages of photographs of her home city—goes on sale May 5. Ahead of its release, I spoke to Battaglia about her life and the emotional toll of seeing the Mafia inflict violence on her hometown. She also shared some exclusive photos from the book with us.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

VICE: How do you feel your work has changed over time?
Letizia Battaglia: I dealt with crime in Palermo for nineteen years, so my style came out of that alone. I photographed with passion. I wanted to document everything I felt acted as testimony against the Mafia. Then I stopped shooting crime when the heroic newspaper L'Ora closed, and also because I'd lost the physical alertness required to report.

Palermo is a beautiful place with a rich history—do you think that's in peril?
I believe that, today, there is an increasingly dangerous obsession with consumerism—the past seems more like an obstacle to modernity and wealth. And so there is no money to protect our Arab-Norman and Baroque heritage; there is no money to fix the amazing historic center of Palermo; there is no money to preserve and protect the landscape, our sea.

What differences strike you the most about the Sicily of the 1970s and the Sicily of today?
In the 70s, there was a furious Mafia war against civil society, with so many murder victims, so much pain, and so much poverty. Today, the Mafia is more subtle, less furious; it doesn't kill judges, politicians, or police men anymore. What interests the Mafia now, as always, is the power. And now that they have achieved that, they no longer need shoot people. It's enough for them to elect political representatives who look after their economic interests.

Is this book your final work? A kind of love letter to the place that has provided the most inspiration to you?
I put together pictures of my life, of my people. I searched in my negatives for things that I'd forgotten I'd photographed. I tried to tell the story of my love for this land, which cannot get away from the tyrants who oppress her. I searched for beauty within the ugliness. I spent hours with Paolo Falcone, the curator of Anthology, searching for a poetic thread between the various negatives. Sometimes I even cried.

To what extent does the Mafia exist outside of southern Italy?
The Mafia was certainly born in Sicily, but now has interests everywhere. Through drug trafficking, the Mafia has investments in northern Italy, as well as in Europe. It's more dangerous than before because it has inserted itself into the worlds of finance and politics, but operates using the same barbaric techniques as those who peddle drugs.

Do you think the Mafia control comes from Sicilians being one of the most ruled-over places in history? A sense of people being happier oppressed than free?
Yes, I think we are a people who could not choose our own freedom for ourselves.

When you drive down the stretch of road where Giovanni Falcone, the famously anti-Mafia judge, was assassinated in 1992, how does that make you feel?
I loved him a lot. We were grateful for what he was doing; his fight against Cosa Nostra was powerful, and at last we could hope for change. But we weren't able to protect him, and neither was the Italian state. But how do I feel? I feel humiliated, angry, and determined not to give up. And these feelings have nothing to do with fear.

You've dedicated such a large portion of your life to this very dark topic—how has that affected you?
I've suffered a lot—so much so that I've had to run away from Palermo several times. But I've always returned. I've done everything I can to preserve my sanity: I've planted trees, I've surrounded myself with young people, I've gotten involved in politics with a brave and extraordinary mayor called Leoluca Orlando [the current mayor of Palermo]; I've loved and been loved. I've reminded everyone that there's still something good and beautiful under this sky, as, above all, I'm always looking for beauty and trying to photograph it.

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