Rosaria Schifani at her husband's funeral, 1993. Credit: Letizia Battaglia.
Rosaria Schifani at her husband's funeral, 1993. Credit: Letizia Battaglia.

It has been known for a long time that a photograph does not transform the world, but it does help the reflection and the consequent transformation of a situation. Especially when we talk about photojournalism or documentary photography. Noticing what is happening around us, letting our eyes wander freely through the images that slide before us. To perceive in its harshness, not a look deprived of sensitivity or poetry, but a look that intentionally decided to tell us a story. As the American philosopher Nelson Goodman (1906-1998) stated, “if art creates worlds to know and visit, they are not just worlds of shapes and symbols, they are also worlds of mixed emotions and sensations”. Emotions linked to the perception of the world, which the artist conveys to us. Or as neuroscientist António Damásio says “We humans are born storytellers, and we are very satisfied telling stories about how it all started”.

The photographer Letizia Battaglia. Credit: Shobha/IMS Disclosure
The photographer Letizia Battaglia. Credit: Shobha/IMS Disclosure

These statements by these scientists connect me a lot to the Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who passed away recently, on the 13th of April. This column is therefore a tribute to this woman who found in photography, in journalism, a way to tell her world, the harsh city of Palermo, in Sicily, Italy – for years dominated by the Mafia. The strength of her images in telling her city is directly linked to what Agner Heller wrote in her book Theory of Feelings: “When we are not emotionally involved with something, we lose interest, strength and boredom appears”. Letizia was totally immersed in her desire to photograph not the Palermo told in the police pages, but the Palermo of beauties. And through her photographs of Mafia crimes, she also narrated the beauty of the characters, the people who walked those streets. When, in 2019, the Instituto Moreira Salles brought a retrospective of his images, when writing the text for the newspaper Estadão, I thought: “These are raw, harsh photographs, but at no time sensationalist. These are images that also escape the often romanticized stereotype of the mobster, whether through film or literature. Images that narrate life in those years dominated by the Mafia. Many close-ups, images that come close, that do not shut up in the face of horror”.

She was the first Italian photojournalist, making room for generations that followed and revered her. Her images are silent, contained, they contain nothing but what she wants to show, to present. are accurate. Images that had an impact on history. If apparently they are mute, the photographs, however, are disturbingly silent.

Young man with a soccer ball in the neighborhood of La Cala, Palermo, Sicily, 1980. Credit: Letizia Battaglia.
Young man with a soccer ball in the neighborhood of La Cala, Palermo, Sicily, 1980. Credit: Letizia Battaglia.

Letizia has always refused to be recognized as the Mafia photographer, has always been against Mafia crimes, but without fear, already at 30, in 1971, already a mother, she abandoned the Sicilian life and went to live in Milan, attracted by cultural life, theater and literature. There she started to write and collaborate for various journals. Instigated by friends who, in addition to the narrative, wanted to see images of the places she referred to, she discovered photography and became a correspondent for the newspaper L'Ora di Palermo, reporting on how Sicilians lived in the north. In 1977 she returned to Palermo to be editor of the newspaper. The only woman in a masculine world, Battaglia was often harassed by her “colleagues”,  but he never let himself be defeated and continued on ahead, photographing the dead and their tormentors, children and women closely, very closely. The pain and love of a passionate city.

Letizia Battaglia never let us forget the importance of reporting on the world, of putting herself on the scene and taking a position when taking a photo: “I lived photography as a document, as an interpretation. I lived it as a form of salvation and truth”. Letizia believed that only culture could save us from barbarism.

In the times we are living, the photojournalist's gaze has never been so important. The images produced today will undoubtedly be in the history books tomorrow. It has never been more important to think of photography as the protagonist of a narrative and not as an illustrative appendix to a text.  It has never been more important to relearn storytelling. I started this column saying that an image does not change the world. But it can serve for reflection. In 1992 Palermo became known as the “City of the Mafia”, in 2018 it became the capital of culture. Many thanks to this restless look from a woman named Letizia Battaglia! Thank you for teaching us to exercise.

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