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Seeing Sicily's scars

Intriguing, mysterious, complex and beautifully photogenic, Sicilians “are like gods,” according to a line in Luchino Visconti’s classic film “The Leopard.”

From Homer to Hollywood, the Italian island of Sicily spews mythological characters as often as Mount Etna spews lava. When it comes to the unavoidable subject of the Mafia, stories are spun endlessly in this seismic Mediterranean landscape.

Through his black-and-white project called "Terra Nostra," photographer Mimi Mollica returns to his native Sicily to rethink the portrayal of his people, often enshrouded by myth and stereotype of the Cosa Nostra.

“My work is not about Mafia,” Mollica said. “It is on the consequences of what Mafia has left behind. This is a personal journey through my own land as a photo documentarian.”

Traveling through western Sicily, Mollica fixed his camera on the towns of Caltanissetta, Trapani, Agrigento and other notorious Cosa Nostra strongholds. The photos here are from Sicily’s capital city, Palermo.

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In a recognizably Italian neo-realist approach, Mollica documents the erosion of Sicilian society as seen in its daily life. The weathered faces of bus passengers in dilapidated stops. Illegal building sites and other signs of land speculation. A generation of disenchanted laborers. An anti-Mafia prosecutor with police protection. And finally, mysticism and religious fervor.

"Religious imagery is very much associated with Mafia culture, from some of their sponsored processions where the faithful pay tribute to the saint and the Mafia boss, to some of the Mafia bosses who think they have spiritual mission to bring justice,” Mollica said.

The Cosa Nostra’s eerie omnipresence in Sicilian tale is not just a Hollywood myth. Anyone who has lived there for long enough will have had — knowingly or not — some form of encounter with the Cosa Nostra through its tax system called the pizzo.

“We are the orphan of democracy,” Mollica said. “Today, our infrastructure is feeling the decay of a system of corruption in politics and society.”

Mollica said he wanted to photograph “the indelible scars left from the pizzo system,” and his work advocates the return of what he calls “the loss of dignity” of his people.

“When I look out at the beautiful sea there on a good day and see that it is blue, that the Mafia factories are not dumping sewage in the sea, I turn around to face yet another depressing site: a derelict, illegal building site bearing the name of a Mafia family,” he said. “These scars on our landscape will never go away.”

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN