Letizia Battaglia, the Sicilian Photographer of the Mafia

Shobha - Ritratto di Letizia Battaglia - Courtesy of the Artist

By now, I’m pretty sure you all know where I come from 😉 — and how proud I am about it. The following post is very close to my heart and to my cultural sensitivity, as sometimes I have the impression that there is a weird mix of fear and awe when talking about Mafia today. And a lot of false myths entangled with it. In a month like this, in which Anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone’s statue was vandalised, former and legendary Cosa Nostra Boss Totó Riina was sentenced to stay in prison for his crimes, and legal proceedings of the process “Mafia Capitale” is nailing its perpetrators, I feel I had to add something through the lenses of Art.

So keep reading to discover more about it and about the photographer who captured it in its bare, gruesome essence.


Portrait of Letitia Battaglia by Francesco Bonomo, 2017

Last week I talked about some of the most interesting kick-ass girl-bosses in art world whose Instagram profiles — I’m sure! —   you are now following.

Today I would like to introduce you another kick-ass lady, the Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia. Her snapshots of Sicily during the 1980s and 1990s are simply considered a part of Italian history and a visual diary of my beautiful, yet tortured, native land. For 30 years, Ms. Battaglia has photographed her land, Sicily, with crude and tragic images in black and white, denouncing the activities of Mafia with brave and incisive reportages for Palermo’s left-wing daily paper L’Ora.

L’arresto del feroce boss mafioso Leoluca Bagarella, Palermo, 1980
Omicidio Targato Palermo, 1988

Convinced of the validity of civic commitment as a factor of change, over the course of the years she has put her talent and passion as a photographer at the service of diverse causes, from women’s issues to environmental problems. The comprehensive retrospective held at MAXXI in Rome last year, Letizia Battaglia: Just for Passion, testifies to just this.

Born in Sicily in 1935, Letizia Battaglia began her photography career in the early 1970s and started photographing the Sicilian Mafia in 1974. As the photography director of L’Ora, she was present at every major crime scene in the city until shortly before the paper folded in 1990. From these assignments, Battaglia produced many of the iconic photographs that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia throughout the world.

Trial of Mafiosi, 1980

Like an Italian Diane Arbus, Battaglia’s look on Cosa Nostra and the political and social situation was unflinching. She was someone not willing to ‘look away’ and stay silent in front of the bloody war for power and control the clans were pestering the island with. She even received death threats from Cosa Nostra. Cosa Nostra – literal translation: “Our Thing”. This is the name of the Sicilian Mafia, as opposed to the Mafia from Calabria, aka ‘Ndrangheta, and the one from Naples, aka Camorra.

I due Cristi (The two Christs), Palermo, 1982

I only saw one body of a person killed by you-know-who in my hometown. Drug matter, I believe. I was 6 and I was on my way to school. This was just a very tiny piece of the puzzle though, as — mind you! —   the part of Sicily where I come from is the one with the lowest Mafia concentration of all. But Cosa Nostra killed hundreds of people in the past decades and in a myriad of fashions: gunned down on the streets or in their own apartments, dissolved in acid, blown up in the middle of a highway.

I know that when thinking about Mafia, the majority of the people have in mind the very iconic scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, when a dude wakes up in his bed with a horse’s head next to him. I am not sure whether this is a myth or not, but a dead person is a dead person, and you can hardly wash that image from your head. On top of that, what people fail to understand today is that the Mafia is a very smart organisation, which evolves with time and adapts accordingly. Get this: these days, Cosa Nostra is recruiting people via social media — what’s smarter than that?

In Battaglia’s own words:

“The situation today is even more complex and saddening. The mafia no longer kills judges, police officers and anti-mafia activists. Because many ‘friends of the mafia’ have been democratically elected, they now directly manage public affairs, government, and institutions. The repercussions are visible everywhere. Many magistrates who have worked against this system have been jailed, and honest prosecutors have been threatened – in the same way my dear friends Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were, before their assassinations in 1992.”

Michele Reina, Secretary of the Sicilian Christian Democratic Party, killed by the Mafia, 1979 (Gift of the Photographer to the W. Eugene Smith Legacy Collection)

In years when the word ‘Mafia’ was barely whispered in public, Ms. Battaglia was chronicling its brutal activities for all to witness. And just figure this: in 1979, she boldly set up oversized photographs of Mafia victims in the main square of Corleone, the domain of Sicily’s most notorious and ruthless Mafia clan (Godfather again, anyone?). She was aware of the potential consequences. “I did exhibits against the Mafia, in Palermo, on the streets, in Corleone. I was afraid,” she conceded in an interview with The Guardian. “There, I said it, I was afraid. It was true. At the time, I was offered a security detail but I refused it because I would have lost my freedom,” she added. “It was too important. I felt the duty to continue, the duty not to be afraid.”

A prostitute and two of her friends killed by the Mafia, 1983 (Gift of the Photographer to the W. Eugene Smith Legacy Collection)

“It turned out all right in the end because they didn’t kill me,” she said matter-of-factly. What’s more hard-core and kick-ass than this ladies?

If you want really to know what Cosa Nostra is, you would like to stop confusing it with ‘Ndrangheta and Camorra, then you should dive into Battaglia’s visual world. It will be an enlightening and eye-opening experience.

Portrait of Letitia Battaglia by Francesco Bonomo, 2017

If you’d like to approach your discovery and understanding of Mafia, I can highly recommend reading the book FAQ MAFIA, by Attilio Bolzoni. The best place to start.

Feel free to shoot me any questions you may have in the comments below.


Special thanks
…To my art bae Annie, for the inspiration, support and enthusiasm.
…To my Sicilian reader Francesco Bonomo, for sending me the beautiful portraits of Letizia.
…To Letizia, for being such a brave, uncompromising, inspirational model.