Letizia Battaglia’s Raw Photography of the Sicilian Mafia

 By: Isabel Gonzalez

Photographer Letizia Battaglia wanted to show audiences the effect of the mafia on Sicilian society. By capturing the conditions for the development and consequences of the mafia, Battaglia was able to use photography as a tool to resist the power of the mafia. Letizia Battaglia was able to use her art to make the mafia and their identity more visible to the rest of the world. Letizia Battaglia was photographing the mafia and the consequences that it had on Palermo for almost 20 years (SALVIO, 99-114). She fearlessly captured the bloody truths of the mafia, photographing crime scenes, arrests, and the terrified civilians of Sicily. Not only was Letizia Battaglia heroically fighting for herself, but was creating visual stories for the citizens of Palermo that were exposed to the crime of the mafia (SALVIO, 99-114). The creation of these humanistic stories is where Battaglia’s power and influence lie in the importance of the anti-mafia revolution.

Within Sicily, the mafia was a system of organized crime that provided protection and support for businesses and families associated with businesses. Although the mafia provided aid and protection, they did it illegally, threatening and even murdering people to hold power and status. There was a level of distrust within Sicily, considering the state of Southern Italy after the unification of Italy, which allowed for the mafia to seem like a plausible solution for people that did not trust the political and civic system. With zero trust in the legal and political system, the mafia was able to expand throughout Sicily and create an underground network of crime. Letizia Battaglia started photographing the mafia in Palermo during the early 1970s when she worked for a publication called L’Ora (SALVIO, 99-114). Before being a photographer, Battaglia was married at the age of 16, later leaving her husband 19 years later to gain her freedom (SALVIO, 99-114). Apart from the photojournalism unit at L’Ora, Battaglia was able to focus specifically on the mafia and the stories that came from the pictures. Her past of growing up in Sicily’s hypermasculine culture encouraged her to crave freedom as a woman and civilian. The use of photojournalism allowed Letizia Battaglia to resist the mafia, by showing people the truth of their horrific acts and violent corruption. Throughout her photographs included in this paper, you will see that Battaglia gave the silenced people of Palermo a voice by sharing their stories (BATTAGLIA, 54-57).

This first image taken by Battaglia in 1977 is an image of two young men, both groomed and dressed in expensive-looking suits. The photograph is titled Confronted…young Mafiosi which can be translated to mean young members of the mafia. This is somewhat a lighthearted photo in comparison to the photographs of murders that Battaglia shot, however, there is intense symbolism behind this image. The audience is presented with two young men who are involved in the mafia, expressing the generations of mafia members. If you grow up in a family that is mafia, then you are most likely to become involved in the mafia, a concept that can be shown within this image. There is power in these young men, they seem to be confident in themselves. Although we don’t know their specific age, they do look like teenagers. The left subject looks almost cocky while the right looks incredibly serious. The photograph cuts off the image of another man, possibly older on the far right. Battaglia seems to of taken a candid photo of these men, capturing their true essence. She showed audiences that families were deeply involved in the mafia, regardless of age. 

Confronted…young Mafiosi, 1977, Source: The Guardian

In this photograph shot by Battaglia is a child with a gun and mask to cover the identity of his face. Here is another image of the different generations that were involved in the mafia. This child pictured in the photo knows how to grip the gun that he is using. It seems as though someone has taught him how to use this weapon. The mask on his face is used to cover his identity, I’m assuming a tactic used by the mafia to keep their crimes secretive. The focus is clearly on the child, however, it looks as if there is a policeman in the background of the photo talking to another child or young adult. This image shows that even children within the mafia are capable of committing heinous acts. It resembles that children believe that shooting people and using guns is normal. I believe that Battaglia was trying to show audiences how organized crime was so normalized in Palermo that even children were susceptible to this type of behavior. That is a learned behavior passed down in families. 

A child with a gun in Palermo, 1982, Source: International Center of Photography

In this photograph shot by Battaglia is a child with a gun and mask to cover the identity of his face. Here is another image of the different generations that were involved in the mafia. This child pictured in the photo knows how to grip the gun that he is using. It seems as though someone has taught him how to use this weapon. The mask on his face is used to cover his identity, I’m assuming a tactic used by the mafia to keep their crimes secretive. The focus is clearly on the child, however, it looks as if there is a policeman in the background of the photo talking to another child or young adult. This image shows that even children within the mafia are capable of committing heinous acts. It resembles that children believe that shooting people and using guns is normal. I believe that Battaglia was trying to show audiences how organized crime was so normalized in Palermo that even children were susceptible to this type of behavior. That is a learned behavior passed down in families. 

This last photograph by Letizia Battaglia is titled A teenager with no hope for the future and was taken in 1986. This is an incredibly dark picture, as the teenager sits behind possibly his dead father or relative. The family member of the teen was most likely a member of the mafia or someone who was killed by the mafia. The boy has a very serious and direct look at the camera, rather than seeming upset or mourning the death. The title of the photograph could explain that the boy has no hope for the future possibly because his father is dead or because the boy could one day be dead because of the mafia. The cross in the picture could symbolize that even religion cannot save the fate of this young man. Letizia Battaglia continually shot pictures of young people that were involved or affected by the acts of the mafia. The dangerous climate of Palermo seemed to of been very unstable and damaging for the growth of young adults as many were affected emotionally by the deaths of family members and pressurized by the mafia to join their forces. I believe Battaglia’s intent for this photo was to show the suffering of people affected by the mafia, especially young children growing up. 

A teenager with no hope for the future,
1986, Source: The Guardian

Letizia Battaglia shaped the perspective of the mafia in Sicily for about 20 years through the use of her courage and camera. She told the stories of the people of Palermo that suffered from the mafia’s vicious actions. Battaglia photographed generations of family members, showcasing the history of the mafia’s involvement in Sicily. Her influential voice was used through her photography, capturing raw and intimate moments between the subject and their situation. Through the photographs mentioned in this paper, Battaglia served as a way of archiving history for the stories of the mafia. 

References

ASX, Editorial @. “Mafia, Dead Bodies and Photography – Students Interview Letizia Battaglia (2001).” AMERICAN SUBURB X (blog), September 23, 2013. https://americansuburbx.com/2013/09/interview-letizia-battaglia-students.html.

BATTAGLIA, LETIZIA, et al. “AGAINST THE ODDS: ONE WOMAN’S BATTLE WITH THE MOB: AN INTERVIEW WITH LETIZIA BATTAGLIA.” Aperture, no. 132, 1993, pp. 54–57, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24471680. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.

Blind Magazine. “Letizia Battaglia, Who Photographed the Italian Mafia, Dies at 87,” April 14, 2022. https://www.blind-magazine.com/stories/letizia-battaglia-who-photograhed-the-italian-mafia-dies-at-87/.

Claudia Karagoz (2012) Palermo revisited: Letizia Battaglia’s Finedellastoria/ EndoftheStory, Studies in European Cinema, 8:2, 153-162, DOI: 10.1386/seci.8.2.153_1

International Center of Photography. “A Teenager with No Hope for the Future,” February 29, 2016. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/objects/a-teenager-with-no-hope-for-the-future.

Letizia Battaglia: In Conversation. Accessed May 1, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iQGhdmEXO4.

O’Hagan, Sean. “Archive of Blood: How Photographer Letizia Battaglia Shot the Mafia and Lived.” The Guardian, November 27, 2019, sec. Art and design. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/nov/27/archive-of-blood-how-photographer-letizia-battaglia-shot-the-mafia-lived.

SALVIO, PAULA M. “Reconstructing Memory through the Archives: Public Pedagogy, Citizenship, and Letizia Battaglia’s Photographic Record of Mafia Violence.” The Story-Takers: Public Pedagogy, Transitional Justice, and Italy’s Non-Violent Protest against the Mafia, University of Toronto Press, 2017, pp. 99–114, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctv2fjwqgh.9. Accessed 11 Apr. 2022.

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