Journalist Kim Wall Remembered As A "Badass" By Her Friends
"This is an industry full of posers... Kim was the opposite."
Danish police announced on Wednesday that remains found floating in Copenhagen harbor matched the DNA of missing Swedish journalist Kim Wall, leaving a tight-knit community of reporters, scattered all across the world, grappling with the loss of a talented colleague who charmed sources and friends alike with her empathy and humor.
"Kim was a rare breed. She’d ask about digging up city election records and in the same breath remind you, with great delight, that Shakira is pregnant,” said Laura Dimon, a reporter at the New York Daily News, who went to graduate school with Wall.
Wall, 30, grew up in Malmö, Sweden, with her parents and brother, but lived abroad most of her adult life.
Her mother, Ingrid Wall, wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that the family felt “boundless sadness and dismay” at news of her death.
“During the horrendous days since Kim disappeared, we have received countless evidence of how loved and appreciated she was, as a human and friend as well as a professional journalist,” wrote her mother.
“From all corners of the world comes evidence of Kim's ability to be a person who makes a difference,” she added.
BuzzFeed News talked to over half a dozen of her friends and colleagues, who spoke glowingly of her unending curiosity, her love of puns, and her impressive knitwear collection. Wall was known amongst her friends as a “good hugger” who regularly dragged them out for karaoke and dumplings. More than anything, they were proud of her adventurous life spent traveling the world telling good stories.
After graduating with a bachelors in international relations from the London School of Economics — including a study-abroad program at La Sorbonne in Paris — Wall worked in Australia as a reporter for the Swedish Embassy, for a European Union delegation in India, and as an intern at the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.
In 2012, she moved to New York City to complete a dual-masters degree program in journalism and international relations at Columbia University.
Since March 2016, she’d been based in both New York City and Beijing, and had plans to move full-time to Beijing with her boyfriend this month.
Wall also travelled constantly for work — since early last year she’d visited Cuba, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and the United States — believing that the best stories don’t get told from inside newsrooms.
“This is an industry full of posers. A lot of people making their experiences and stories seem more than they actually are. Kim was the opposite. She was living the stories and did no self-promotion,” said Christopher Harress, an investigative reporter in Mobile, Alabama, for AL.com.
Harress met Wall on their first day at Columbia Journalism School, and tried to impress Wall by speaking in Swedish. In return, she introduced herself as “Kim Millionaire” and quoted Notorious B.I.G lyrics.
Wall quickly found success, with articles published in the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, the BBC, Vice, Foreign Policy, and Time. But it’s the stories themselves that are most impressive. As she explained in her Twitter bio: “I write about hackers, hustlers, Vodou, vampires, Chinatowns, atomic bombs, feminism.”
She interviewed “furries”, vampires, and a man who designed rocket ships for Muammar al-Qaddafi before moving to a tropical island. Wall travelled to North Korea to write about growing tourism (and later proudly advertised her Brooklyn loft online as having a substantial art collection from the Hermit Kingdom). She took photos of Chinese couples in New York who staged elaborate fantasy wedding photo shoots.
“What's so fantastic about the stories Kim writes is not that she writes about things no one has reported on, but her ability to give her subjects incredible humanity, to write their stories in a vivid and most of the time, a humorous way, and to put individuals' stories into a bigger social and historical context,” said Yan Cong, a photographer from Beijing, who became close friends with Wall in the last 18 months.
The pair had worked together on an article about Beijing's "beautification campaign" and they struggled to find a publisher. "But Kim would take any risk to work on stories she cares about so wholeheartedly that the results don’t seem matter to her," said Cong.
In recent years, Wall reported on tiger poachers in India, covered modern voodoo in Haiti, and wrote about how Sri Lanka sells its civil war to tourists.
In 2015, along with two friends from Columbia, she won a GroundTruth Project grant and traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on a radioactive-waste site abandoned by the US government.
Photographer Coleen Jose, one of her colleagues on the project, described Wall as "an artist, piecing together memory from various elders, recorded and oral histories as well as the moments we observed in the atolls."
The trio also had a complicated game for who would vomit first from sea sickness thanks to the three-day sea voyage, with Wall listening to the podcast Serial to distract herself.
After winning an International Women's Media Foundation grant to go to Uganda, she visited and wrote about the torture chambers of former dictator Idi Amin in 2016.
"We knew she was someone we wanted to continue to support because of the quality of her work and the unique human interest stories she was finding that no one else was really looking at," said Nadine Hoffman, deputy director of the IWMF, who led the February 2016 Uganda trip that Wall went on (she later wrote a story about the impact of China on culture and business in Uganda).
One of Wall's most recent stories, in Harper's Magazine, funded by a grant from the Pulitzer Center, outlined how Cubans accessed pop culture, including memes, telenovelas, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, through a weekly delivery of an external hard drive.
The director of Oscar-winning film Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, tweeted a link to her latest Harper's piece, calling her a "fantastic journalist."
Often she traveled and worked with other freelance reporters, teaming up to save costs and share work. She was due to soon publish a piece in Longreads about women’s rights in Sri Lanka, after landing another IWMF grant with a colleague.
“She was able to to take on anything and saw stories where others didn't. She was a badass. It's sad that I'm only now seeing how much of a badass she was,” said Harress.
Although the full details of her death are not known, she'd been interviewing Danish inventor Peter Madsen about his private submarine, which was financed in part by crowdfunding, when she went missing.
“Of course she was profiling some crazy inventor who had his own submarine, that would be the kind of quirky story she would just gravitate towards,” said Hoffman.
Wall's friend Sruthi Gottipati wrote in The Guardian about how Wall's disappearance — she was pre-reporting a story — highlights the dangers freelance reporters face.
"As news organizations grapple with shrinking budgets, they increasingly rely on freelancers, who cost less and are often willing to take on the attendant risks reporting in places they wouldn’t send their staff to. Even against this backdrop, the competition is fierce to place stories and female freelancers work hard to ensure their gender isn’t calculated as a liability. So they clam up about the dangers they face and sometimes report before being commissioned to do so," wrote Gottipati.
And while friends are horrified and shocked that, of all the conflict zones and dangerous places Wall traveled to and reported in, she died in Copenhagen, they also don't want that to define her.
"It's true that female freelancers are more vulnerable than other freelancers. But she was just doing her job. She could do everything: take pictures, write, film video, report," said Marie Telling, a senior writer and producer at BuzzFeed Food and Tasty, and a friend of Wall's from grad school.
“She was clearly a rising star, to have accomplished what she did. She was gonna do a lot of other great things too,” said Hoffman.
Wall’s boyfriend, who alerted police that she was missing, had got a transfer to continue his graduate studies at a university in Beijing, so he could be with Wall. She told Cong via WeChat in July that they’d rented an apartment together, and could move in after Aug. 15.
“We talked about getting tattoos together. She wanted to get '拆', which means 'to demolish', a Chinese character that’s always graffitied on the wall of buildings to be demolished. I loved the idea – it says so much about her love of Beijing, and how painful it is to watch the city losing its original beauty in rapid development and urban beautification campaigns,” said Cong.
Cong had planned to meet Wall for lunch and a documentary film about North Korea this week.
“If the tragedy didn’t happen, she would have been in Beijing now, biking in alleyways."
Wall's upcoming move to China was a cumulation of years of love for the city and culture, and she was already planning the stories she'd write. A pitch on Mao impersonators had been accepted, and, with Cong, she'd hoped to write about everyday Chinese women who gravitate subconsciously toward feminist ideas.
"This, sadly, will remain a story idea," said Cong.