Sicily and the Mafia by Letizia Battaglia

The photoessay titled ‘Sicily and the Mafia’ in the New York Times Magazine’s May 18, 1986 issue began:

A new generation of judges and officials has declared all-out war on the Mafia in Sicily. The battle being waged in the courts, in the political arena and in the streets of Palermo, Sicily’s principal city. Two photographers, Letizia Battaglia from Palermo and Franco Zecchin, a Milanese, in the course of working for a Sicilian daily newspaper, L’Ora, joined the campaign, seeking to inform and educate the public about the Mafia. For the last six years, they have been documenting the violence and corruption synonymous with the Mafia and recording the arduous struggle to make justice, at long last, prevail on the island.

Letizia Battaglia did not pick up a camera until she was almost 40. From 1974 until 1992, she worked chiefly for L’Ora. The paper had made a reputation for its investigative stories on the mafia since the 1950s. The late 1970s and the 1980s marked the resurgance of organized crime in Southern Italy, in the so-called second Mafia War. As the Italian state unraveled in ever-widening gyre of political chaos, in Sicily, the Commission — a central organization of mafiosos — was resurrected. Several competing factions prepared to fight and claim territories for protection rackets.

Battaglia would document mafia murders of judges, politicians, police, and members of rival families. Sometimes she would find herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. She and Franco Zecchin, her companion in life, were often first on the scene because they had an illegal police scanner. Battaglia received many death threats, but continued on, eschewing bodyguards and working alone on her Vespa motor-scooter, sustained by chain smoking. She used a Leica and took photos in black and white only so that vivid blood stains were no visible.

At times, she would openly challenge the mafia. In 1979, she gathered photographs of victims and set them up in the main square of Corleone, the hometown of Sicily’s most ruthless crime family at the time. She also invited other photographers to participate but most declined. Her “Archive of Blood”, as she called it, grew and grew as the mafia activity spread. For years, people bought L’Ora to see who had been killed the day before.

The violence would consume even the most powerful of local leaders. Michele Reina, Secretary of the Sicilian Christian Democratic Party, was killed in 1979. Judge Cesare Terranova, a member of the Anti-Mafia Parliamentary Commission, ambushed that same year. Battaglia recalled: “This was one of the most important men in Sicilian politics. When he was killed, I said nothing worse could happen. Nothing. It was not true.” 

One afternoon, January 6, 1980, the Feast of the Epiphany, she spent with friends at a restaurant and on her way home, she saw a commotion around a stopped car. She took the above photo of the dead body of Piersanti Mattarella, the island’s president, who was murdered on his way to Mass, being carried out of a car. (The man carrying him, his brother Sergio, would be elected president of Italy 35 years later.) Mattarella was shot in his car for speaking out publicly about the involvement of establishment politicians in organized crime. When Battaglia arrived, the politician was still alive and while his wife, who was in the car with him, desperately clung to his body.

Here, Battaglia remembered taking the photo above, which was one of the photos in the New York Times photoessay (link):

They murdered Nerina, a young prostitute who had started drug-dealing independently from the mafia cartel, and her two male friends. Allegedly, she had disobeyed the mafia’s code of honour. Naturally, the killers were never found.

It was 1982, and I entered this little room in Palermo against the will of the police. They did not want me – a photographer and a woman – at the crime scene. When I realised there was a woman among the victims, I started shaking. More than usual, I mean. I was overcome by nausea and could hardly stand. I only had a few seconds to take a couple of pictures: there were men shouting at me to work fast.

It isn’t easy to be a good photographer when you’re faced with the corpses of people who were alive and kicking only minutes before. In those situations, I would often get all the technical things wrong. But I did my job, I photographed, trying to keep the image in focus and the exposure correct.

Since Nerina, who is slumped in the armchair, had been the main target, I found myself thinking about her. In that small room, her still body was at everybody’s mercy, more objectified than ever. My contact with her lasted only a few moments and was filtered through the lens of a cheap camera. But I saw her alone, lost in an eternity of silence. In that short time, I started to love her. I find women beautiful and courageous, and I love photographing them. They hold so many dreams inside themselves.

Eventually, her ‘Archive of Blood’ would contain more than 600,000 images: a boy with a toy gun and a stocking over his head, playing at being a hitman; a 10-year-old boy, lying on the forecourt of a garage, killed because he witnessed the murder of his father; the face of the widow of a policeman at his funeral after he had been blown up, along with the judge Giovanni Falcone.

For years, Battaglia’s work was little known outside Italy but in 1985, she received her first international recognition: the W. Eugene Smith Grant for humanistic photography, followed by the New York Times magazine photoessay the following year. That year marked the beginning of the infamous six-year Maxi Trial which would result in the revenge murders of the judges involved.

The Italian state, which had unscrupulous connections with the mafia, was slow and reluctant to respond, even when the mafia detonated a half-ton of explosives under the highway in May 1992 to assassinate a judge (who was a close friend of Battaglia). The next year, Giulio Andreotti, the seven-time prime minister of Italy was indicted for corruption. He had flatly denied ever meeting or having any dealings with the mafia, but police found a photo from 1979 in Battaglia’s archive that showed Andreotti with Nino Salvo, a go-between from the mafia to local politicians. Salvo was said to have helped organise the murder that year of Mino Pecorelli, a journalist privy to many of the operations of Italy’s deep state. Andreotti was found guilty in 2002 of involvement in Pecorelli’s death, but his conviction was later overturned.

The New York Times Magazine, May 18, 1986

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