The Mafia isn't like 'The Sopranos' - it's like ISIS, crusading photographer says

Story highlights

  • For decades, Letizia Battaglia has been photographing the aftermath of Mafia crimes
  • Her new book shows brutal murders as well as the beauty of her native Sicily

Rome (CNN)"The Godfather" and "The Sopranos" may have romanticized the mob and created a whole genre of gangster movies, but Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia doesn't find the topic all that entertaining.

"Americans love 'The Sopranos.' They don't believe the Mafia is like (they see on TV), but the Mafia is dangerous like ISIS," she said.
    "When I see ISIS soldiers, I feel like they are a little bit like Mafiosi. They don't give a damn about life. The Mafia doesn't give a damn about anything but their interests and money and don't care who they hurt along the way."
    Battaglia has seen the devastating effects of organized crime and corruption firsthand.
    Photographer Letizia Battaglia
    The 81-year-old Sicilian has spent her career photographing the innocent -- and not-so-innocent -- victims of Mafia murders.
    "My archives are full of blood," she said. "But I have also seen such immense beauty in the regular, complicated daily life in Sicily."
    She has culled the best of her 600,000-strong archive for her book "Anthology," which will be released in Europe this month and then in the United States in September.
    She hopes her book will shed light on the real Mafia, not the one seen in movies, she told CNN in an exclusive television interview.

    Brutality leavened by hope

    Battaglia's photos of brutal murder scenes are interspersed with photos of young girls and Sicilian women who give her hope.
    The book closes with a photo of her daughter in the throes of labor.
    She took the picture the day after she photographed a heinous and bloody Mafia murder scene in 1995. "There were not a lot of sweet moments in my life during those years," she said. "When my granddaughter was born, it gave me hope."
    Next year, she will open an exhibit to showcase what she refers to as "the immense talent" of photography, art, poetry and sculpture in Sicily.
    "This has always been my dream, to open such a center in the place where I have seen such ugliness and such beauty, and to defy the 'ugly wealth' that comes with the price of extreme poverty," she said, referring to the sacrifices regular Sicilians have had to make because of the Mafia.

    Accidental photographer

    A man covers himself with a cloak in the streets of Sicily in 1989.
    Battaglia should know about sacrifices. She came of age in Palermo during the bloodiest period of Italy's battle with the Mafia, at the time when the syndicate was expanding its illicit trades in drugs and weapons.
    She married a wealthy older man at the age of 16, had three daughters, then left him and moved to Milan in 1971 when her children were grown.
    She got a job as a journalist, fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer.
    "I proposed articles and they said, 'and the pictures?' ... So I bought a camera," she said. She was never formally trained as a photographer, yet she has won dozens of international awards for her work.

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    Three years after she started taking pictures, an anti-Mafia, anti-Fascist newspaper offered her a job back in Palermo to shoot Mafia crimes. "I was so happy to go back to my hometown of Palermo and be a photographer," she said. "But I didn't know the Mafia was so ferocious. It was terrible. I was there in Palermo, with my camera, and I forgot about being a writer."
    Battaglia spent the next four decades trying to find the balance between the bloody crimes and the beauty of Sicily. Her book seeks to bridge that gap with photos of young women and girls alongside photos of mostly dead men.
    "My archive is full of dead people," she said, adding that even today when the phone rings, she assumes it means something terrible has happened. "Now if I think about that sentiment, I feel nausea. To meet death, such violent death, is terrible."

    Friends killed

    Battaglia recalls the cold-blooded murders of judges, including Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-Mafia judges she knew well. Their deaths in 1992 came to symbolize the island's struggle with organized crime.
    "The best judges, the best policemen, the best people were killed. Some were friends," she said. "I can't accept that this happened. I can't finish my life accepting this. I want love. I want beautiful things. I want a normal life. That's what my photos were fighting for."
    Her photos have come to represent the collective memory of that violent period, said John Dickie, author of several Mafia books and a professor of Italian Studies at University College in London.
    "There was an exponential increase in Mafia violence around the time when Letizia Battaglia started," he said, describing an influx of drug money as the Sicilian Mafia developed its hold on global heroin trafficking. That, he says, fueled the Mafia's arrogance against anyone who stood in its way.
    "Sicily was really becoming a narco-state, and she had the kind of humanity not just to photograph the politicians and the dead bodies, but to register the impact of all that daily familiarity with death, especially on the children," Dickie said.

    Called into court

    Anti-Mafia judges sit in a courtroom in Sicily in 1981.
    Eventually, Battaglia's photography and fearlessness put her own life at risk. But it also made an impact on how authorities dealt with organized crime.
    When then-Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti was accused of Mafia collusion in 1993, authorities subpoenaed her archives for photos of him with famous Mafiosi. They found two photos that provided the only physical evidence that linked him to the Mafia, though the charges did not stick and Andreotti was absolved of all crimes.
    "I was afraid sometimes, like when violence was against me or when they called me or when they wrote a letter against me to say that if you don't go away from Palermo, you will be killed," she said. "But fear is not important like democracy and beauty."
    Battaglia said that while there are fewer deaths at the hands of the Mafia, the power of the organized crime syndicate is still present in Sicily today.
    "It is the same, maybe even worse perhaps," she said. "The Mafia is now more powerful than before. Before it was savage, they killed. Now they are in politics and financial life. This is not only blood ... it is corruption."