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Remembering Letizia Battaglia Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

14 April 2022

Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose work often focused on the Sicilian mafia and its victims, died yesterday in Palermo, the city of her birth, after a long illness. She was 87.

She married when she was 16, only taking up photography after her divorce in 1971 when she was in her mid-thirties. Trying to support her three daughters, she had discovered she was more likely to sell her articles if they were accompanied by photographs.

After living in Milan, she returned to Palermo in 1974 with her longtime partner Franco Zecchin to work for L'Ora newspaper until it ceased publication in 1992 after 92 years in print. She began covering mafia killings for the daily paper with a Leica, riding to crime scenes on a Vespa.

'I did what I could to shake consciences by showing not only violent deaths but also the poverty caused the mafia.'

During that time she took over 600,000 photos, which she dubbed her "archive of blood," documenting the effect of the Sicilian mafia on the island. That included, at great danger to herself, the brutal mafia wars of the 1980s and 1990s during which hundreds died.

"They were terrible years," she told an interviewer in 2017. "You no longer knew who your friends or enemies were. In the morning, you came out of the house and did not know if you'd come back in the evening. The bosses could blow my head off, any second."

But her lens also fell on the effects of mafia culture, showing for example a boy playing hitman by pulling a nylon stocking over his face and holding a toy gun.

"I did what I could to shake consciences by showing not only violent deaths but also the poverty caused the mafia," she explained.

She also covered the Sicilian elite, many of whom had connections to organized crime. And she was active in saving Palermo's historic Baroque neighborhoods from real estate developers.

An advocate for women's rights, she served on the Palermo city council from 1985 to 1991 and the Sicilian regional assembly from 1991 to 1996. She established a publishing house, Edizioni della Battaglia, and was co-founder of Mezzocielo, a monthly journal for womens.

In 1985 she received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography. In 1999 she received the Photography Lifetime Achievement of the Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography. In 2007 she received the Dr. Erich Salomon Award, the lifetime achievement award of the German Society for Photography. She was given the Cornell Capa Infinity Award by the International Center of Photography in 2009.

In 2005, Battaglia appeared in the documentary Excellent Cadavers in the role of a survivor and passionate eyewitness. She also had a cameo appearance in the 2008 Wim Wenders film Palermo Shooting as a photographer.

A documentary film based on her life, Shooting the Mafia, was released in 2019.

"Palermo has lost an extraordinary woman," noted Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo and a friend of Battaglia. "Letizia Battaglia was an internationally recognised symbol in the art world. She was an extraordinary person who made visible what was invisible."

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