I can't recall the exact details of the first time I met Kim Wall. This isn't because she was unremarkable or unmemorable—on the contrary, she was a force of nature with a formidable list of accomplishments and accolades. In hindsight, I realize, this is probably because she was so humble, gentle, and unassuming that I had no way of knowing the extent of her abilities at the time.
As a litany of media reports published in the past week have stated, Kim was an award-winning 30-year-old Swedish journalist who died in mysterious and tragic circumstances while reporting a story about a DIY inventor. But I don't want to focus on the gory details of her end. It's baffling and sickening to see that multiple outlets have framed her death as some kind of Scandinavian noir. This does a huge disservice to her memory, because the heartbreaking reality is that the story is nonfiction—and at its heart is a vibrant, young female journalist who was killed while doing a job she loved. She should be remembered for her outstanding work and big heart, and not the tragedy that befell her.
I did the same journalism Master's program as Kim, a rigorous course from which she emerged with honors. She was in the year after me, and we met through my old roommate who had worked on a reporting trip with her. I was never really close with Kim, but I have always admired her, and I still remember her indelible presence whenever we saw each other in social situations: Her long red hair was usually piled on top of her head in a messy bun, and though she was soft-spoken, she would draw you into lengthy, illuminating chats about anything from gender identity politics to the value of a journalism degree.
Kim's dogged reporting took her all over the world; at any given moment, you were never really sure where she was. She often told people that she lived between New York and Beijing, but really it's more like she lived between New York and the rest of the world. And as her mother said in a gut-wrenching statement on Facebook, she touched so many lives along the course of her travels. "She gave voice to weak, vulnerable, and marginalized people," her mother wrote in Swedish. "That voice was long overdue."
What most distinguished Kim's work was the way she truly listened to her subjects, and brought their stories to life with grace, never once slipping into sensationalism. Whether she was reporting on a how people in Cuba access pop culture without internet or the fraught enterprise of bringing tourism to Haiti or a community of people who are convinced they're vampires, her work always brought you into people's real lives and showed you the world as they saw it—without judgment, but with an astonishingly perceptive eye.
What happened to Kim is still shrouded in mystery. Although her body has now been identified, no one really knows what really took place. Already, her death has raised important questions about the safety of female journalists, especially those who work as freelancers. As her friend Sruthi Gottipati wrote in the Guardian last week, "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."
But Kim was experienced and well trained. Her parents have spoken of how they could have never imagined that their daughter, who spent years reporting in dangerous places, would die so close to where she grew up: off the coast of Copenhagen, only a few kilometers from her childhood home. Unfathomable tragedy is truly the only way to describe what happened. But just because her story ended in horror doesn't mean her memory should, too.
My personal favorite story of Kim's is the one about Gibtown, a self-proclaimed "Freakshow town" in Florida inhabited by former circus workers. I love it because it's so vivid; the text seems to open up and swallow the reader whole. You can feel the humidity of that small town in Tampa, and the complicated love its misfit residents have for it. Whereas others might have seen only stigma, suffering, or oddity, her telling conveyed a tiny utopia, populated by a tight-knit makeshift family. The most remarkable part of the story is how tender, and how mundane, Gibtown seems.
As a reporter, Kim was uniquely capable of looking beneath the surface, of elevating nuance and humanity. When you read about her life, I only ask that you offer her the same dignity.
Kim's family are in the process of setting up a grant in her name for female journalists pursuing Kim's interest in reporting on subcultures. You can find more information and details on how to contribute here.