The celebrated Italian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, best known for her work documenting the mafia and their victims in Sicily, has died aged 87.
Armed only with her Leica camera and mounted on a Vespa, Battaglia scoured the alleyways of Palermo during the 1970s and 1980s photographing the victims of mafia murders and the internal wars between rival clans. As a result she received several death threats.
Born and raised in postwar Palermo, she had moved with her family to northern Italy and married at 16. But after divorcing and a three-year sojourn in Milan, she returned to Sicily with her longtime partner, Franco Zecchin, in 1974.
Her ambition was to be a writer, but her journalistic career came to an end when she first picked up a camera at the age of 40. “I thought: ‘With this in my hand, I can take on the world,’” she once told the Guardian.
During those years, a war between the mafia families in and around Palermo led to hundreds of deaths. The Corleone clan decided to conquer the city by killing its rivals, along with dozens of police officers, judges and politicians who were trying to stop that war.
“They were terrible years,” Battaglia said in another interview 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.
“When the police stopped them, I approached them, as close as possible, to photograph them, in their handcuffs. I wanted the bosses to look me in my eyes, even at the cost of spitting on my face. That was also a way for me to challenge the mafia.”
The 600,000 iconic images she took helped expose the brutal reality of the mafia and their victims in Sicily.
“Suddenly, I had an archive of blood,” she once said.
The shocking, transgressive images of bodies taken by Battaglia were featured in a 2019 documentary about her life titled Shooting the Mafia.
Battaglia had been ill for some time and died late on Wednesday in the Sicilian capital, prompting an outpouring of tributes on social media.
“Palermo has lost an extraordinary woman,” Leoluca Orlando, the mayor of Palermo and a friend of Battaglia, said. “Letizia Battaglia was an internationally recognised symbol in the art world. She was an extraordinary person who made visible what was invisible.”