Coleen Jose: Kim Wall was the kind of journalist most of us in the industry aspire to be
Her work shone light on the world's troubles, illuminating some of the dark places, writes Jose
Editor’s Note: Coleen Jose is a documentary photographer and creative strategist. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
Kim Wall wasn’t just an extraordinary storyteller, she was also one of my beloved friends and a colleague. I found her sense of humor and adventure contagious. And I wasn’t the only one.
“We would work late on stories, but were always sure to take breaks with cat videos,” Annie Zak recalled of her time with Kim at Columbia Journalism School. “Kim always had good ones to share.”
Like Annie and so many of our friends, I will miss laughing with Kim. I’ll miss her pings and emojis sent on WhatsApp (peace sign, palm tree, two pink hearts), her stories from her latest adventures, her style (I should’ve asked her how to tie my hair in a messy, cool bun) and her knit sweaters from Sweden. I’ll miss how she thought about the world with deep curiosity and a strong sense for our shared humanity.
But Kim was also an artist in her reporting. She pieced together memories, or recorded and oral histories, to bring us closer to understanding the stories she was telling. And in our Marshall Islands reporting with Hendrik Hinzel, she humanized a forgotten time and community there, highlighting the displacement, starvation and destruction of ancestral land during the Cold War era.
Kim’s passion for storytelling wasn’t just limited to her Marshall Islands reporting. It could be seen in her work from Beijing to Port-au-Prince to Coney Island. She traveled to some of the most challenging places on earth and engaged with individuals who many reporters would hesitate to approach. She wrote of the tour buses traversing Sri Lanka’s battlefields, Chinese feminists in the D.C. Women’s March, and Idi Amin’s torture chambers in Uganda, humanizing these and many other stories for a global audience.
“Kim Wall was one of the first reporters who helped us get worldwide exposure about our mission and the consequences of our government’s decisions: past, present and future,” wrote Frank Bolton, who along with contracted civilians, disposed of radioactive debris in Enewetak atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Frank is a founding member of the Enewetak Atoll Atomic Debris Cleanup Veterans, an advocacy group of US military servicemen and civilian contractors who were tasked with cleaning up radioactive debris in the atolls from 1977 to 1980. Along with Hinzel, our reporting partner, Kim and I were introduced to Frank and the group’s work in the course of covering the lingering legacy of US nuclear testing and the consequences of climate change on the Pacific island.
From 1946 to 1958, the US military detonated 67 nuclear and atmospheric bombs on Enewetak and Bikini atolls, displacing indigenous communities and leaving the land radioactive and unfit for habitation.
Frank’s characterization of Kim, who has been my friend since we met in a photojournalism class at Columbia in 2012, could not be more apt. Kim, who disappeared and was confirmed dead after boarding Peter Madsen’s homemade submarine in Copenhagen, was the type of journalist many aspire to be: courageous, creative and impactful. Her body of work speaks to journalism’s core mission: shine light on the world’s troubles, illuminate the dark places.
As Kim wrote, Enewetak was just what the US military wanted in a test site. It was “sparsely populated, equipped with a gigantic Japanese-built airstrip, and sufficiently far from major shipping lanes yet conveniently close to supplies from Hawaii. Never mind that all of its ancestral land belonged to someone.” As she made clear, “the Americans didn’t bother asking for permission.”
Kim had an astute skill for communicating cultural and political nuance for an international audience. She did so with detail and care as she wrote of Marshallese ancestral land and how the nuclear testing era decimated traditions in sea voyaging, music and cultivation on the low-lying atolls. The bombs also poisoned the islands for generations, causing intractable illnesses among its population.
In the same piece, Kim brought to life the memories of those directly affected by the testing. “Tagaji Iso remembers spending weeks in the midst of the Pacific,” she told her readers. “They brought only clothes, tatamis and blankets and there was never land in sight. A boy at the time, he was in awe with the sheer size of the ship: a US vessel, complete with volleyball courts on deck. As atomic bombs fell on Tagaji’s ancestral land, shockwaves rocked the ship like a toy boat.”
As an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow, she had been trained in working in hostile environment situations. And her determination to tell a story to the best of her abilities outweighed the challenges and uncertainties that come with freelance international reporting.
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There can be no doubt, we’ve lost a friend, a daughter, a sister and a light of compassion in the world.
Kim’s family, friends and extended network are in the process of honoring her life and impact in journalism with a grant. The grant will support young women journalists pursuing an interest in reporting on subcultures. If you are interested in supporting or learning more, please email: email@example.com.
To read more of her work, please visit the website, Remembering Kim Wall.