Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament


Project Leader: Prof. Sandra Ponzanesi

Sandra Ponzanesi is Chair and Professor of Media, Gender and Postcolonial Studies, at the Department of Media and Culture Studies, Utrecht University, NL. She has published in the field of media, postcolonial studies, digital migration and cinema with a particular focus on Postcolonial Europe from a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective.

She has led the ERC project ‘Digital Crossings in Europe: Gender, Diaspora and Belonging’ CONNECTINGEUROPE and the PIN project “Postcolonial Intellectuals and their European Publics” funded by NWO (Dutch Research Council)  in collaboration with many European partners. 

She is coordinator of the Special Interest Group ‘Games and VR for Inclusion’ for the Focus Area Game Research. She is also co-coordinator of the IOS Platform Gender, Diversity and Global Justice and board member of the UU Focus area Migration and Societal Change and involved in the UU Centre for Environmental Humanities

She is the founding director of the PCI (Postcolonial Studies Initiative)

Second supervisor & advisor: Dr. Wouter Oomen

Wouter Oomen is a lecturer in media studies at Utrecht University, where he recently defended his PhD dissertation. His research is focused on humanitarian communication and on the platforms that enable and constrain the circulation of humanitarian imagery and discourse. Wouter Oomen is co-director of the Expertise Centre Humanitarian Communication, a non-profit organization committed to better communication on international development. He has taught in a broad range of courses in media studies and social sciences, at the University of Amsterdam, University of Groningen, Utrecht University and the London School of Economics.

PhD candidate: Laurence Herfs (she/her)

Laurence Herfs is a PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Culture Studies and part of the NWO funded project Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine:  Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament. She conducts research into the representation of refugees, migrants and the suffering Other within immersive and VR media technologies. For this project, she draws on media theory in conjunction with discourse analysis, cultural analysis and postcolonial studies, in order to offer a comprehensive qualitative analysis of VR productions produced in the past decade with the focus on how VR collapses the division between spectator and distant sufferer. She examines the implications of this from a critical media perspective as well as postcolonial and intersectional perspective. The research is supervised by Prof. dr. Sandra Ponzanesi and dr. Wouter Oomen.

Laurence’s academic background is in game studies, cultural analysis and visual media studies. She previously taught in the minor game studies at Leiden University, where she specialised in Japanese video game productions. Laurence also holds a BFA from The Royal Academy of Arts in Fine Arts. 

PhD Candidate: Lisa Burghardt (she/her)

Lisa Burghardt is a PhD candidate in the Department of Media and Culture Studies and part of the NWO funded project Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine:  Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament. Within the project, she conducts research on how we can assess the experience of audiences being immersed in VR installations around topics of migration. She will be looking at the effect this has on audiences engagement with the topic and whether there are changes in attitudes and behaviour after the VR experience. She will do so through a post-phenomenological, postcolonial and intersectional perspective. Through these insights she hopes to better understand the potentials and pitfalls of VR and how it might allow to bridge between distant Others. The research is supervised by Prof. dr. Sandra Ponzanesi and dr. Wouter Oomen.

Lisa’s academic background is within Techno-Anthropology, Science and Technology Studies and Philosophy of Technology. She also holds a BA in International Communication and Media. 

Research Assistant: Kathi Ammann (she/her)

Kathi Amman is a second-year research master’s student in the Gender Studies program at Utrecht University. She has a background in Social and Political Sciences and focuses academically on critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and politics of care in times of precarity.