Palermo: The Photography of Death


One morning in 1993, several Italian policemen arrived unexpectedly at the house of Letizia Battaglia, where she has her office, carrying a warrant to conduct a search of her vast photo archive. Battaglia had worked as the photography director of L’Ora, Palermo’s left-wing daily newspaper, from 1974 until shortly before the paper folded in 1990. She had begun to document the atrocities of the Mafia long before it was popular or safe to do so. Either Battaglia or one of her assistants was present at the scene of nearly every major crime as Palermo descended into one of the most bloody and tragic periods any European city has known since World War II.

Between 1978 and 1992, Cosa Nostra murdered virtually every public official in Sicily who interfered with its business: the chief of detectives, the head of the fugitives squad, and the deputy chief of the Palermo police; the general in charge of the military police; three chief prosecutors; the head of the leading opposition political party in Sicily; the head of the leading government party; two former mayors of Palermo; the country’s two most important Mafia prosecutors; and even the president of the Sicilian Region, the highest-ranking elected official on the island.

Along with political assassinations, a newly dominant group within the Sicilian Mafia from the nearby town of Corleone undertook a major Mafia war, a veritable campaign of extermination intended to eliminate their rivals within the organization, as well as anyone (whether friends or relatives) who could offer support to their internal enemies. The result was that some one thousand people were either murdered or made to disappear.

On call from morning until late at night, Battaglia sometimes found herself at the scene of four or five different murders in a single day. In the course of this grisly routine, she and her longtime partner Franco Zechin produced many of the images that have come to represent Sicily and the Mafia throughout the world: a corpse lying face down in an alleyway; a boy with his face hidden in a nylon stocking, brandishing a weapon—the gun is a toy, but the look on the child’s face is that of a hardened killer; a group of black-shawled women sitting impassively on chairs in the presence of a corpse bleeding onto the sidewalk.

But it was not the scene of a murder that the Palermo police were looking for that day in 1993. In her sixteen years at L’Ora, Battaglia photographed virtually everything of possible interest to the newspaper—fashion shows, crime scenes, religious processions, striptease performances, political rallies, and glittering receptions in the palaces of Palermo’s aristocracy. Taking hundreds of pictures a day for nearly twenty years, Battaglia accumulated some 600,000 images—most of which remain in negatives and contact sheets—creating an extraordinary visual chronicle of Sicily over the nearly twenty years of a period of convulsive change.

Battaglia’s archive is organized by subject. The police asked to see the file on the Christian Democratic Party—the party that had…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.