The Swedish journalist Kim Wall was killed in August after boarding a private submarine to interview its inventor. But this is not what she should be remembered for, says her friend Caterina Clerici. Hers was an extraordinary life – a fearless reporter an
The last time I saw Kim was in late June, when she returned to New York after spending some time reporting in Europe. Visiting friends in the city she loved to hate, she was also doing “the rounds” with editors to pitch ideas.
Over the previous year and a half, a lot had happened: she had won fellowships with the International Women’s Media Foundation to travel to Uganda and Sri Lanka, and had landed a commission for a feature in Harper’s magazine on how Cubans deliver culture without the internet.
Kim and I started reporting together just over four years ago, fresh out of journalism school. We both liked to write, but I soon shifted to photos and visuals – among other reasons, because it allowed us to be a team. More recently, we had started working separately and travelling a lot. We would sometimes joke about how we had started “seeing other people”.
Most importantly, Kim had fallen in love and was about to move to Beijing with her boyfriend. At the age of 30, after years of frenetically moving around to pursue her career – which at times made her feel removed from her Swedish childhood friends, who were already married, buying houses and starting families – she finally had a long-term plan. None of us could believe it, especially her. But she seemed truly happy.
She was excited and scared, as always, but this time excitement won out. Beijing was “like New York in the 1980s”, as she put it – cheap, rough and ready for change. “People are actually doing things, not just talking about doing them.”
But a couple of months later, in August,
Kim became the story.
Her death was announced on 21 August, 11 days after she had boarded a submarine where she was due to conduct an interview.
What happened to her is not the screenplay for a Swedish noir, contrary to how the media presented it. And it must never, ever be used to blame a woman for reporting on her own, or to say that women aren’t able to do this job.
Every independent journalist I know would have put herself or himself in that situation, in the course of reporting what sounded like an extremely quirky, complex and challenging story – that of a Danish man who had started building rockets as a teenager, and designed and built the largest private submarine.
What saddens me the most is that she would have written a fair and beautiful portrait of an unusual character. It would have been a perfect Kim story.
Kim’s reporting outfit – white tennis shoes, her hair in a messy bun – was always somewhere in between casual and confident, clumsy only at first glance. A bit like her. Biting a pen in the corner of her mouth, she would stare absent-mindedly out of the car window, at a blank spot in her imagination, and then scribble down questions on her notebook until we got to the interview location. There, she would start her magic.
In February 2015, we were on our first assignment for the Guardian US in Gibsonton, Florida, known as “the town where the American freakshow went to die”. About 12 miles south of Tampa, the carnival capital was founded by a man called the Giant (he was more than 8ft tall) and his wife, the Halfwoman (she was just over 2ft). By the 1960s, it was home to hundreds of self-defined “human oddities” – the Monkey Girl, the Fat Lady, the Penguin Boy … Everyone who had run away with the circus.
“For those who didn’t quite fit elsewhere,” Kim’s piece began, “Gibtown was a utopia.”
This was exactly the kind of story Kim liked to do. She had a soft spot for misfits, for places and people that did not conform and were frowned on if they stood up for themselves. She made it her mission to learn from their perspective, always trying to make the odd one out to be a little less odd.
Kim was born to tell stories, and born to write. “When she was six years old, she thought that the bedtime stories were too short,” her mother, Ingrid Wall, told me.
“Then she learned to read on her own.”
She grew up in Trelleborg, Sweden, where her mother was a financial journalist and her father a photojournalist. Kim and her older brother, Tom, grew up with “ink in their nostrils”, as her mother put it, smelling five or six fresh newspapers every morning at the breakfast table. When Ingrid and her husband, Joachim, had assignments, they would sometimes take the kids with them.
“Kim didn’t want to be the kind of journalist I was, reporting on economy and business in our region. She wanted to go out into the world. So, she told us she would get the best education and background so she could understand it.” Above all, she