ROME — Letizia Battaglia, a photographer who captured years of bloodshed in the Sicilian mafia in Palermo, Italy, in unshakable images that became engrained in the national consciousness, died Wednesday at her home in Palermo. She was 87.
Her daughter Patrizia Stagnitta confirmed her death, but did not specify the cause.
“Mario Puzo wrote a book about the mafia. Coppola made a movie. But only Letizia Battaglia tells of the true story and the harsh reality,” reads the blurb for Anthology, an art book of her photographs that emerged from a 2016 exhibition of her work in Palermo, the capital of Sicily.
Mrs. Battaglia went to work for the Palermo newspaper L’Ora in the 1970s, during the turbulent years known as the second mafia wars, when gangsters from the town of Corleone tried to catch the crime gangs from Palermo.
The gang war has killed hundreds of mafiosi, as well as law enforcement officers, prosecutors and politicians. Mrs. Battaglia and the photographer Franco Zecchin, her life partner, were often the first on the scene because they had an illegal police scanner.
One of her most famous photos, taken on January 6, 1980, showed the corpse of Piersanti Mattarella, the governor of Sicily, held by his brother Sergio, who is today the president of Italy.
Even as she documented those murders, Ms. Battaglia openly challenged the hold the Mafia had in Sicily. In 1979, she collected photos of victims and put them in the main square of Corleone, the birthplace of Sicily’s most ruthless crime family at the time. It was a bold and potentially dangerous move.
“Her photos were an act of condemnation,” Paolo Falcone, the curator of several recent exhibitions of her work, said in a 2017 interview with DailyExpertNews for a Saturday profile of Ms. Battaglia. “She was a photographer, but above all an activist.”
Other photos of the mafia were displayed on the streets of Palermo. “I was scared,” she admitted to The Times, adding that she could not count the number of times she had received telephone threats or been harassed in the street. Once, she received an anonymous letter telling her to leave Palermo for good. “Your sentence has already been handed down,” she said.
The threats hardened her determination to make a difference. She became a leader of the so-called “Palermo Spring” in the mid-1980s, when ordinary people began to openly condemn the mafia.
Mrs. Battaglia later entered politics and won a seat in the Palermo City Council and then in the Regional Parliament.
Letizia Battaglia was born on March 5, 1935 in Palermo. Her father, a sailor, took the family to Trieste in northern Italy, where she spent her childhood before returning to Palermo. Her mother was a housewife.
Mrs. Battaglia married when she was 16 and had three daughters in her mid-twenties.
In 1971 she left her husband and moved to Milan, where she started working as a journalist. Her career in photojournalism began after editors encouraged her to photograph the subjects of her articles. She taught herself how to use a camera, inspired by photographers she admired, such as Mary Ellen Mark, Josef Koudelka and especially Diane Arbus, whom she met in the 1980s.
She returned to Palermo in 1974, just before her 40th birthday.
Ms. Battaglia is best known for the photographs she took while working in L’Ora’s crime department from 1974 to 1992. She was also attracted to social issues. Her subjects included the patients of a psychiatric hospital, the poor of the island, the challenging lives of women and young girls growing up in Sicily, and especially her city of Palermo.
“Palermo has lost an extraordinary woman,” Mayor Leoluca Orlando wrote on the city’s official website. “Letizia Battaglia was an internationally recognized symbol in the world of art, and a banner in Palermo’s liberation from the rule of the Mafia.”
In her later years, she was celebrated in exhibitions at major museums and in art books filled with images from an archive of some 600,000 photographs.
“I’ve never considered myself an artist, and I’m still amazed to go into a museum and see my work,” said Ms Battaglia in the 2017 Times interview.
She first gained international recognition in 1985 when she received the W. Eugene Smith Grant for Humanistic Photography, awarded by the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund in New York.
In more recent years, Mrs. Battaglia at the creation of Palermo’s first museum dedicated to photography, the Centro Internazionale della Fotografia, which opened in 2017.
Orlando Mayor announced Friday that the center would be renamed after her, as would a street in a Palermo cultural center.
A television miniseries about her life, “Just for Passion: Letizia Battaglia, Photographer”, will air in Italy next month. “She had a very adventurous life,” said the director, Roberto Andò, in a telephone interview. “I’m just sorry I couldn’t show her.”
In addition to her daughter Patrizia, she has two other daughters, Cinzia Stagnitta and Shobha Battaglia, who is also a photographer; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Ms. Stagnitta said in a telephone interview that her mother continued to work despite difficulty walking. In the week before her death, Mrs. Battaglia took part in a workshop in central Italy, and earlier this year photographed a young Italian singer for a weekly magazine.
“She was still working and earning her daily bread,” Ms Stagnitta said.