Catching up with... Johannes von Engelhardt

Johannes von Engelhardt is a PhD candidate at ERMeCC and has been involved in the International Bachelor Communication and Media (IBCoM) for many years. At the moment, he is focusing on completing his PhD dissertation Regarding the pain of others. Representations and perceptions of mediated distant suffering. “I’m looking at different types of humanitarian disaster and how the way that they are being covered affects the way that we engage with victims of these disasters.”

Johannes’ interest has been focused on media representations of human suffering and humanitarian disasters for a while now. “Quite early on during my studies I realized that I was really interested in this topic, so I did my master thesis about news coverage of the wars in former Yugoslavia and the genocide in Bosnia.” Johannes followed up on this track afterwards and wrote a PhD project proposal about humanitarian disasters and the way these are presented in western media. “Specifically on how western media audiences respond to and interpret these images and stories in foreign countries. I realized when I was reading up on the literature that even though there is a lot of speculation about how people respond to these images and how we engage (or fail to engage) with media representations of suffering, there is very little empirical research about this.”

Coming up: PhD dissertation

Media representations of suffering have always been an interesting angle for Johannes. “Especially the representations of those things that are often unimaginable – images and stories about degrees and types of suffering that especially we, here in our western ‘safe zone’, find very difficult to imagine. We don’t know anymore what war is and what it means to lose your whole family to a disaster. For most of the western media audiences, these have all become purely mediatized experiences.”

Johannes’ research is especially topical when it comes to the civil war in Syria. “Everything that we think we know about the war in Syria, and about the suffering that people go through there, comes through the media. And that makes it particularly relevant to study.”

One aspect that Johannes looks at in his research is the degree of agency that is given to refugees in images. “I investigate whether that changes the way we engage with their suffering. One of the big criticisms is always that media tend to portray the victims of humanitarian disasters as being very passive and just waiting for western help to arrive, which obviously is not the case. These people need to be very active, resilient and pro-active in order to survive. So I wanted to see whether changing the way we talk about them also changes the response that we show towards them.”


Beyond EUR

His dissertation is however not the only thing that Johannes is doing. “Besides my academic PhD work, I’m working as a research consultant for different international development organizations. I am involved in projects that try to gather reliable data about people’s lives in contexts and countries where this tends to be very difficult. These are places like Gaza and Togo, where we don’t really have reliable public opinion data, and we look for ways to still get good quality data about people’s life in those circumstances. Working on these projects is also something that I will continue to do after I finish my PhD.”


Johannes’ two most recent publications are in a special issue on distant suffering of the International Communication Gazette that he co-edited (here and here). However, he has also published a number of articles in non-academic spheres. “I’m trying to use my topic and research to communicate to the wider world as well, for example with an article that I wrote with Emy Koopman in De Correspondent and pieces for a Dutch NGO platform about ways of engaging audiences in issues such as global poverty.”

What about IBCoM?

Johannes has been part of IBCoM since it was founded in 2009. Together with Joyce Neys, he played a significant role in the development of the introductory statistics course, which is a crucial part of the curriculum for first year students. Unfortunately for the future IBCoM students, 2015-2016 was the last academic year that he taught this course. After six years of being a constant at IBCoM, he has passed on the statistics course. “It felt kind of weird, but I did it with a very good and light heart because I was able to hand it over to a colleague who I know will take very good care of the course and make sure that it continues to work well for the first year students.”

While Johannes will no longer be teaching in IBCoM, he trusts that IBCoM students will see him again. “Here and there, maybe as a guest lecturer, or in a different context– but my actual teaching involvement in IBCoM is kind of over. I’ve enjoyed the ride!” Next to the international aspect of the programme, which made teaching “much more unpredictable and more interesting” for him, Johannes appreciated the IBCoMmunity a lot. “There is really this IBCoM sense, this community sense of ‘we’ as IBCoM. And this is true, I believe, not only for the students, but also for the lecturers. It really felt like something you were doing together, which, I know from experience, is very different from other programs with hundreds of students and dozens of teachers.”