Letizia Battaglia

“The Beauty of Palermo is in its Soul”: an Interview with Letizia Battaglia

Working on our special issue on Manifesta 12 and traveling to Palermo, I met Letizia Battaglia in her home to learn more about her life and career as well as the projects she’s undertaking at the newly opened art space Centro Internazionale di Fotografia at Canteri Culturali alla Zisa.
by Mara Sartore
June 5, 2018
Mara Sartore
Battaglia Letizia

Last November you opened at the Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa The International Photography Centre. How did the idea come about? Was there an active collaboration with city institutions?

I’ve always loved working with others, especially with women. A photographer usually works alone but I have always worked within a group of people. I have always dreamt of and imagined having a space dedicated to photography that would value and take into account not only Sicilian talents, but also those from elsewhere. I had already started in 1978, by opening the first photo gallery in the South below Rome. I have always looked abroad with curiosity, but never with a sense of inferiority. Seven years ago I went to my beloved Leoluca Orlando mayor, I spoke to him about my idea of opening up the Centre of Photography and he said “all right, let’s do it”. After his agreement, I communicated the news to the press; some people went to the mayor in opposition to the project, declaring: “why can she do it and not us?”. After these protests, the thing stopped, perhaps because Orlando did not want to be unjust. Finally after seven years we have managed to open The International Photography Centre in a pavilion at Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, restored by architect and university professor Jolanda Lima, free of charge and with the support of the Municipality. The International Photography Centre does not only wish to be an outpost where a high-level of photography is carried out and presented, but also a place where important social operations are carried out.

Palermo this year has been named “Capital of Italian Culture”, and the city is hosting Manifesta12. How much are these initiatives worth in reviving the city at local and international level? How has Palermo changed over recent years?

We are just continuing on the way we have always done, we are not doing things differently just because Palermo is the “Capital of Culture” this year. The city has however re-awakened, the restaurants are better equipped, b&bs are popping up everywhere and prices are rising, there are evermore tourists (not that tourists are the panacea, but if they are to arrive, then they are welcome). The Centre of Photography was born to enrich our own lives and helps us to grow. Palermo “Capital of Culture” is interesting even if there are many problems, we are also the “capital” which welcomes immigrants, we have great respect and we are not racist. On the topic of migration, Giovanna Calvenzi, Gabriele Basilico’s wife, has worked at the Centre for free for a whole year on an exhibition entitled “Io sono persona” (I am a Person) 34 Italian photographers who have made photographic projects around this topic. The title “I am a person” comes from a quote by our Mayor in the local paper declaring that Palermo is a welcoming city and that anyone who arrives in Palermo becomes a Palermitano.

Was there a key moment in the change of Palermo or was it a slow and progressive transformation?

A lot has been done in recent decades thanks to Leoluca Orlando and his party members. But so much has depended on the commitment of women. They are more open, more free, more independent. Girls were once slaves to a father, a husband, a brother. We are not talking about independence that comes from work, but about a form of openness. The city has changed culturally from the inside rather than the outside, we do not have new buildings, for example. When in 1989-90 I was councillor alongside the Mayor Orlando, we designed a museum for contemporary arts in Piazza Croci, to take the place of a beautiful Art Nouveau Villa, which the mafia had blown up with a bomb then to build in its place an improbable skyscraper. Today there is a car park where our museum, designed by the Swiss architect Botta, should have stood. Unfortunately, only his model remained because there was never enough money to make it happen. Everything is very difficult in Palermo, it is difficult to eliminate rubbish, it is difficult to rebuild. Bureaucracy is the enemy of progress, often preventing things from actually happening.

Your photography has always been closely linked to your struggle for survival, documenting and condemning the absurdity of the Mafia. Your artistic research, the search for beauty among the horrors of the Mafia is your means of resistance. You began as a reporter almost at the age of forty, becoming a brave witness to Italian history. Can you tell us about your journey as a photographer?

I’m not a photographer, but I’ve alway taken pictures, I was in theatre, I volunteered, I had three daughters, I’ve been in love, but I do not want to label myself as a photographer. I’ve lived with photography, with the Centre, with the magazine Mezzocielo, designed and edited by women only. I’ve always used what I had. It happened to me for forty years to take photos, I used this both as a tool of denunciation to what was happening in Palermo, and also simply to express myself.

Where did this dedication come from?

As a child I wanted to be a writer, then I got married at sixteen to runaway from my jealous father and I fell into a marriage in which he did not understand anything about me. I wanted to study while having daughters, I have always stood back from and remained disengaged from social norms. At one point, when my daughters were grown up, I introduced myself to the newspaper L’Ora as a journalist. It was August, all the journalists were on holiday and needed help and I was welcomed. So I started writing my first articles. After a wonderful session of psychoanalysis that helped me to leave my husband, I went to Milan to offer my articles to Milanese newspapers. There they asked me to provide the items with photos, and so a friend of mine gave me a camera. I was thirty-seven. I started working to make myself independent as I had refused financial help from my husband. I did not want to have to deal with him anymore, I did not want to be a kept woman. In Milan I found space, I found a city that offered opportunities. After a while the newspaper L’Ora called me back to Palermo to direct the photographic team there. I went back to Palermo to work as a photographer, but this work became an ever greater task, because I started when the crazy, greedy and bloody Corleone’s mobsters unleashed the Mafia war in Palermo to destroy us. I photographed to condemn, but with the camera in hand I was able to express myself too, I felt powerful and free. What I wanted to do as a writer, I did as a photographer. But I did not just report, as a woman I always looked for beauty, love, sweetness, tenderness. And photographing the Mafia was to report everything that prevented us from being sweet and happy …

Those were terrible years, how were they overcome?

A month ago there was finally an exemplary sentence at the prison of Pagliarelli. The Court issued a sentence condemning those representatives of the state that immediately after Falcone and Borsellino were killed, made agreements with the Mafia. We have firmly and vigorously supported this process carried out with courage and solitude by judge Nino di Matteo between general indifference and death threats. Now finally, after many years the sentence declares that this negotiation was there.

In Palermo they say that you no longer pay protection money (in Italian “pizzo”), is this true?

We continue to pay it, everyone does, who says that we don’t is either lying or a “mafioso”. The Mafia is stronger than ever, it’s just different. Now it works within the economic and political system and not only in Palermo.

After the bloody period, what has your photography concentrated on?

Always, even when I worked for L’Ora newspaper, I made time to photograph subjects that interested me and that were outside the news: girls, women, poetic moments.

After a few years, when everyone was asking me for pictures of the mafia, and I was marked by everything I had seen and photographed I began to have nightmares, to dream of burning my negatives because I could not stand them anymore. I could not bear to remember and see those images, I escaped from Palermo and locked myself in a house in Paris for a year. I felt marked, but I could not burn the story, I did not have the right to destroy documents which were to pay testament to the history of Italy. So I decided to artificially put my life in front of this photo of murdered men or “mafiosi”. I mixed photos of naked women, of flowers, of little girls with those of the news to recreate a new image, moving the focal point.

Then, I later made a series of photographs that I titled “Invincibles”. I asked myself: “what has kept me going, how have I resisted for so many years?”. I understood who were the pillars which kept me standing: Pasolini, Che Guevara, Ezra Pound, Pina Bausch were my stimuli. Another heroine of mine is Rosa Parks, a young American black worker. One day, going to work, she got on the bus and sat in the place of the whites. A white man asked her to get up but she refused. The white man called the police and the next day with Martin Luther King the revolution broke out and from there the buses opened to all, white and black. For me she is the symbol of the fight against racism.

Tell us what will be going on at the Centre during Manifesta 12 and then if there are some places in the city to which you are particularly attached, where you often go, and what you would suggest to our readers visiting Palermo.

For Manifesta12 I myself participated in a video by Masbedo, sponsored by Beatrice Bulgari. One of the projects that won a competition supported by Manifesta 12 which consists of photographs of 780 works of art which were never finished in Italy. This project will be hosted by The International Photography Centre. Then we have three artists who present projects around the theme of homosexuality. The American photographer Catherine Opie, the Roman photographer Roberto Timperi with “A’mor” and the video “Salvatore” and an installation of flags, and finally “Sguardo di attore” by Massimo Verdastro. Another exhibition is called “Street Watching”, from a book published by Drago. In September we have an exhibition on Enrico Mattei, in October we will have Josef Koudelka, important photographer from Magnum who in 1968 photographed the invasion of the communists in Prague. Towards the end of the year we will have Franco Zecchin, a Milanese photographer with whom I worked for nineteen years at the newspaper L’Ora and who now lives in Marseille. We will close the year with a group exhibition called “Palermo bella nell’anima” (“Palermo Beautiful in the Soul”), for which I will invite a series of photographers to depict Palermo following this theme.

“Palermo beautiful in the soul”, why this title?

Palermo moves me, it makes me angry but I love it so much. And I also love Leoluca Orlando, our mayor. He has such a dramatic look in a recent photo I took of him, a Caravaggio-like face, marked by all that he has lived through to keep Palermo carrying on, amid great difficulties and pitfalls. Orlando is a kind of modern hero. He has sacrificed his whole life for Palermo to pull it through a thousand difficulties so that the Mafia no longer entered the municipality. I would like to see hundreds of images hanging in the walls of the galleries of the Centre which reflect the love that has evaded our city while hatred and violence has tried to destroy us.

What we shouldn’t miss in Palermo?

The historic centre must be visited and appreciated. The alleys, the small local bars, the market squares with the wonderfully overbearing smell of fish. The exhilarating Vucciria, which is no longer a real market but the memory remains. Piazza Magione is rife with nostalgia. Once, there were small houses, it was like a small town. The people who lived there were deported to the social housing in the suburbs. There was a master plan put together by the Mafia and mayor Vito Ciancimino, a terrible plan that wanted to destroy even the baroque church of Santissimo Salvatore to build streets and skyscrapers. Once life in Piazza Magione was extraordinary. Now everything is different, but equally poignant, full of history and also of life. Often beautiful.

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