In a café off Via della Libertà, looking through a folder of images that have haunted me for years, taken by two of the great chroniclers of Palermo’s suffering and injustices. Firstly, Letizia Battaglia, one of Italy’s most celebrated photographers and a legendary figure in the city who, from the mid 1970s, obsessively catalogued hundreds of mafia killings, funerals, arrests, trials, chain-smoking prosecutors, illegal backstreet horse races, religious festivals, and the embattled daily lives of women and children at home and in the street.
Shattered bodies, crumbling buildings, fragile dreams. Over 600,00 images, all in black and white: an unflinching archive of death and life in a war zone.
Over the past 40 years, Letizia has also been a filmmaker, theatre director, writer, publisher, elected councillor, and environmentalist. As Leoluca Orlando’s combative, outspoken ‘Commissioner of Liveability’ in the heady days of the ‘Palermo Spring’, famously she took to the streets of the old city with a team of council workers to clear away rubbish and needles, replant gardens and parks, in an effort to reclaim pride in public spaces. Of the thirty-three resplendent palm trees she planted on the derelict seafront, in the site of an ancient grove, only three survive today; the others are sawn-off stumps.
Now in her late 70s, and largely in retreat from public life, her most recent photographic projects explore a ‘working through’ of mourning by superimposing portraits of Palermitan women over her earlier images of violence: an unsettling frictional montage of bloody (masculine) past and contemplative (feminine) present that invites reflection on uncertain future possibilities.
And secondly, Shobha, Letizia’s daughter, a photographer of international reputation in her own right. She arrives for our meeting to find me looking at one of her mysterious images; it shows a young girl in a long cape with expansive wings, her back towards the camera, as if flying quietly along this shuttered backstreet in Vucciria, past a dog asleep in the gutter, towards the market stalls just visible in the distance. “Ah yes, the angel, she brings a different quality of energy. We need blessings in this city. We need imagination and poetry”.
Since her return to Palermo in the mid 1980s, having lived and studied abroad, Shobha’s work as a photographer has complemented and developed her mother’s, her own critical rage contoured differently by living and working elsewhere for much of the year and by a determination to “pursue life rather than death. The opposite of my mother’s images, and yet exactly the same impulse. We are both on the side of life. Palermo is above all a schooling in compassion. Extreme contradictions live so closely together here. You have to pass through pain to move forward, and I’m not afraid of that. What I really fear is ignorance and forgetting, that’s the void where the mafia and other abuses of power thrive.
"When I first came back to Palermo, I threw myself into that beautiful, optimistic movement around Falcone and Borsellino, Orlando and others. After years of terrible violence and corruption, there was a renewed sense of life, of awakening, generosity, support, a collective endeavor to make things the best they could be; and for ten years I photographed life. But since then so much of this has been compromised and destroyed, and people forget what’s possible. And once more Palermo feels like an abandoned child ...
"There are still people of such quality here, angels who bring light, and there is always beauty to be found in everyday life; but sometimes it feels like the city’s falling backwards into the darkness again. It's not all shit of course; but I live in the moment, and this is a dark moment”.
She talks animatedly about teaching photography in Sicily, working with single mothers, autistic and Down’s syndrome kids, and about the professional training workshops she runs here and internationally: “I try to teach people to be aware, to be awake and ready, here now. I try to teach attention. Attention is hope”.
Finally, she reflects on the differences between Palermo and her other home in India, where “lightness is mixed into the gravity of everyday life, there’s a greater softness and buoyancy there that supports people’s belief in the possibility of growth and change. In Palermo gravity has such an aggressive pull, its heaviness sucks people down, eats their energy. Here we have to really struggle to react and rebel against inertia, to pull ourselves from the mess. Last year this café was firebombed three times within a month. Why? Pizzo, competition, territory. Small minds. Because it’s nice. A normal life is not possible here. It’s the Wild West”.
For Shobha's website, and examples of her projects internationally, see here
For Letizia Battaglia, see her book Passion Justice Freedom: Photographs of Sicily, New York: Aperture (1999); and Giovanna Calvenzi's collection, Letizia Battaglia: Sulle ferrite dei suoi sogni, Milan: Mondadori (2010). For a recent Observer article by Peter Jinks about her work (4 March 2012), see here
Photograph of Letizia Battaglia and Shobha: © Cristina Garcia Rodero