Letizia Battaglia started taking photographs at the age of 10, but one of Italy’s most acclaimed photographers says that she is first and foremost a person, and not a photographer: «I’m a person who takes pictures.»
And yet Battaglia, born in 1935, is for Italy not only a photographer: she is the photographer – the photographer of the Mafia. In Italy’s national archives, her photos documenting victims of the Mafia are unique. They are not ordinary photos taken by a newspaper’s staff photographer that look like crime scenes after a murder. They are genuine, stark, grisly. Indeed, Battaglia’s photos are real war photos.
When she joins the L’Ora – the daily paper of Palermo – it’s 1969, and in Sicily there are more than a thousand dead every year. And sometimes also five, seven murders per day. It’s the Sicily where Luciano Leggio, long-ruling head of Cosa Nostra, eventually arrested, enters the court, head high: reversing roles and making the policemen behind him look like the outlaws. It’s the Sicily where Battaglia sets up an exhibition in the streets of Corleone at the heart of the Mafia, streets that remind you of Lebanon: and she finds herself alone, as the passers-by all look away in fear.
«If they don’t gun down politicians, it’s because they don’t need to anymore.» – Letizia Battaglia
Twenty years pass until 1992, when judge Giovanni Falcone, the champion of the struggle against the Mafia, is killed. Judge Paolo Borsellino, the judge Falcone collaborated with against the Mafia, is already at the hospital when Falcone arrives on a stretcher, dying, and to the journalists Borsellino simply says: «My today’s meeting with him is just postponed.» Borsellino will be killed two months later.
The changing faces of the Italian Mafia
Battaglia never introduced herself as a photographer of the Mafia. Because she was taking pictures not of the Mafia, she explains, but of Palermo. Palermo with all its contradictions, infiltrated by the Mafia and its state of affairs. The dancing evenings of the nobility and the kids of slums – the kids who woke up without a finger, eaten away by mice – the lights and the shadows. As in her most famous portrait, the portrait of Rosaria Schifani – the widow of one of Falcone’s bodyguards – who during the funeral service on live TV, addressed the Mafia mobsters, those men who (it was no secret) were attending the mass like everybody else, and begged them, «Change, Change!» before fainting and saying: «In the end, I know, you’ll never change.»
«I didn’t want them to have any beauty,» says Battaglia now. That is, she didn’t want her mobsters to look strong, to look powerful. To look like successful men, well off and well-respected, in years when the dream of too many kids was to be a killer. In the years of the Hollywood popularisation of mafia crime stories, The Godfather and the like, Battaglia exposed instead the misery the Mafia brings about: for everyone – including its own men.
«Foreign reporters come, stay for a week, don’t see any shootout: and they go back home thinking that the Mafia doesn’t exist anymore.» – Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah
When Totò Riina, the Mafia boss of all bosses, ends up in jail, she observes his face and manners for the first time and says: «And he ruined our life. Such an oaf.»
Today, it looks like a different world when watching Shooting the Mafia with all the old images, the old footage. Roberto Saviano, who wrote Gomorrah, an investigative book about a section of the Mafia and who is now under constant police protection, says, «Foreign reporters come, stay for a week, don’t see any shootout: and they go back home thinking that the Mafia doesn’t exist anymore. And instead, it simply changed.»
From «anti-state» to becoming the state
And I am actually in Bari now, the city I come from in the South of Italy, writing in a popular café, Il Caffè del Marchese. It was recently confiscated due to a money laundering investigation. Now it is open as usual. Like any Italian originating in the South, I could tell you one by one which clan controls which shop here and on which street. Still today, if your car gets stolen you go to the boss of the neighbourhood – not to the police. The Mafia is much less visible than before, yes. But that’s only because it’s everywhere.
It has developed and spread in a poor, backward, neglected South as a kind of parallel society. The Mafia provided what the central government didn’t. And for a long time, it was a criminal organisation. But today, it’s more than that: it has changed from an anti-state organisation to becoming part of the state.
The Mafia plays a role in everything, from infrastructure to migrants. It’s not just smuggling anymore. And most of all, it’s not just Italian anymore. Today the capital of money laundering is London.
«If they don’t gun down politicians, it’s because they don’t need to anymore,» says Battaglia. «Today the Mafia is inside the institutions.»
If there is no war nowadays, it’s because the Mafia has finally won.
See also MTR editorial on mafia/Italy.
Exposing the misery of the Mafia
Letizia Battaglia never introduced herself as a photographer of the Mafia. She was taking pictures of Palermo, she says, where the Mafia is simply part of everyday life and routines.