‘She was alive in ways that most of us can only dream of being alive’

Photo: Pete Vernon

Hours after police in Denmark confirmed that remains found in the water near Copenhagen belonged to journalist Kim Wall, dozens of her former classmates gathered at Columbia’s Pulitzer Hall to pay tribute to the 2013 Columbia Journalism School graduate. They shared memories in a private setting before standing on the steps in front of the building for a candlelight vigil, where they spoke movingly about Wall’s infectious curiosity, passion for her work, and love of the Swedish singer Robyn.

Wall, 30, built a successful career covering an eclectic range of topics—from Haitian vodou to Idi Amin’s torture chambers to staged fairytale weddings—and saw her work published in outlets including The New York Times, Harper’s, and The Guardian. In a statement released after police confirmed her death, Wall’s mother focused on the value of her daughter’s work. “She has found and told stories from different parts of the globe, stories that must be written,” her mother wrote. “She gave voice to the weak, vulnerable and marginalised people.”

“She was one of those people who could walk into a room and start up a conversation with anyone,” says former classmate Dhiya Kuriakose, who works for Condé Nast. “It didn’t matter your background, where you came from, what language you spoke, she had something to talk to you about.”

Wall was planning to move to China with her boyfriend later this month. “As a Chinese-American, I was always impressed by her breadth of knowledge when it came to China,” Justin Chan, another former classmate who is an editorial production associate at The New Yorker, tells CJR. “She was someone who set the standard in terms of reporting not only on China, but also on social justice.”

Below, three professors who taught Wall at the journalism school reflect on her fine instincts, vitality, and ceaseless determination to master her craft.

—Pete Vernon

 

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We had been in school for about a week, possibly two, in the summer of 2012. My basic reporting class, called RW1 then, had begun a three-week introductory course in learning radio reporting and photography. We hadn’t even started breaking news reporting; that would come after Labor Day.

On August 24, almost five years ago to the day, Kim Wall, a student in my class, called me. There had been a shooting at the Empire State Building involving a 58-year-old man who was angry with a former coworker of his. Jeffrey Johnson fired at Steven Ercolino, killing him. The police responded quickly and found people trying to get to work as well as tourists arriving for tours of the building.

They also found Johnson and exchanged fire, killing him and leaving his body sprawled on the sidewalk. Kim had heard about the shooting, and though she had no formal instruction in how to handle such a big story, she wanted to go to the scene. I told her to be careful, but that she could go and gather information and we would see later what she could do with it. She and Christopher Harress, another student in the class, headed downtown.

“When we got there, there was a police cordon,” Chris said during a phone call on Wednesday. “Kim came out from under a scaffolding and ducked under the cordon, and soon she was with the other reporters.”

Nothing came of the reporting because she wasn’t ready to put a story together. “But she did take some pictures,” Chris says.

That is what I remember about Kim. She was determined.

About two months later, Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. I was in my apartment when the phone rang and again Kim was on the line. She had walked from Morningside Heights and had made it to Midtown. She wanted to know if I would edit a story for her about what was happening in the city. She said she was doing the story for one of the London papers, The Independent, I believe.

An hour so later, as it neared midnight, I received her story. We spent about a half hour working on it and she seemed content for the moment.

And that is how I want to remember her: as a young student who somehow understood and respected the art of reporting from the beginning.

—Sandy Padwe

 

For all the skills we teach at Columbia, we can’t teach curiosity and hunger, and yet those are the traits that distinguish a talented feature writer: one who’s never quite satisfied, one who can always think of a few more questions to ask. Kim Wall announced at the start of my semester-long feature writing class that she wanted to write “unexpected” stories, and proceeded to do exactly that. Better still, she took her subjects seriously, even on stories where she might have felt the urge to chuckle at their expense, just a bit. That combination—the ability to find outlier stories and to treat them with respect—enabled her to put her sources at ease, and to get the most out of every interview.

Kim wrote stories about the Chinese wedding photography industry in New York City, about a private men’s club, and about a class in a safe approach to various X-rated practices, the last one probably not destined for publication in a family newspaper. She found the stories by spending time walking the city—she knew instinctively that the best feature stories start face-to-face, not from behind a computer. And she managed to address gender issues without ever sounding like a talking head. Kim grasped the difference between a topic and a story: She was a brave, idiosyncratic, engaged storyteller, which is about the best compliment I can pay anyone.

I’ve been thinking of her, always sitting in the same seat—to the right side, third row back, a thoughtful smile on her face. In retrospect, I think she would have much preferred to be out talking to people, but we all benefitted from the energy she brought to class.

—Karen Stabiner

 

Kim was a student in the course that I teach each spring called “China Seminar.” She petitioned me personally to join the class, which was over-subscribed, and I allowed her to join on the basis of the energy and brightness and sense of purpose that anyone could have detected in her right from that first encounter.

After graduation, Kim moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a reporter for an extended stint, and when I visited that city, she would ask to meet, sometimes together with a clutch of other former J-School students who had formed their own small “China Seminar” community there.

Kim eventually moved on from Hong Kong, spending lots of time in Beijing, which captivated her, but also traveling very widely to other parts of the world: Haiti, the Marshall Islands, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and more. In addition to big, important China, she had a special fascination for small societies in little, forgotten corners of the world, and she reported on them both earnestly and colorfully, without a hint of the patronizing or the formulaic, and this impressed me greatly. In part because I had worked in many of these places, Kim remained in touch, visiting whenever she was in New York, asking smart questions, sharing fascinating stories about her work and the adventures that underpinned it, and exhibiting each time the same unflagging positive energy and curiosity that I had sensed in our very first encounter.

Remembrances can easily sound formulaic, but anyone who knew Kim understood that she had a very special spirit. She was alive in ways that most of us can only dream of being alive. She sparkled with a delightful enthusiasm about everything she undertook, with such a ready, beaming smile. She dreamed big dreams and she was unafraid of pursuing them. Absolutely unafraid.

Kim’s life merits celebration. She was very, very special, and will be missed.

—Howard French

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Pete Vernon, Sandy Padwe, Karen Stabiner, and Howard W. French are the authors of this story. Pete Vernon is a Delacorte Fellow at CJR. Sandy Padwe is retired associate professor at the Columbia Journalism School. Karen Stabiner is an adjunct professor at the Columbia Journalism School and the author most recently of Generation Chef: Risking It All for A New American Dream. Howard W. French is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers, and author most recently of Everything Under the Heavens: How China’s Past Helps Shape its Push for Global Power.