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Presence and Absence in Mollusc Lifeworlds and Visual Essays

Sandro Simon


This article reconfigures and reflects on the author’s visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” (2019), which assembled narration on human-mollusc correspondences and a series of three black and white photos. With the aim to employ the trope of presences and absences throughout matter and form, the three photos were printed page-filling and in normal ink, whereas the text was printed across the photos in Europium, a rare earth metal often used in screens and only visible when charged with additional (black)light. By situating the navigation of the catalogue's in/visibility into the realm of the beholders, these were invited to engage in an interactive, multisensory exploration of text and image.

The here presented reconfiguration and reflection takes up the “original” visual essay’s theme and focusses on the presences as well as absences in mollusc gleaning and around accreted mollusc shells in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal. Added is a companion part, which reviews the interactive and sensory specifics of the printed “original” and critically assesses its reconfiguration into the digital. In this twofold way, this digital essay seeks to trace the (im)possibilities of print-to-digital synesthetic re-enactment and reflects on and invites to probe different kinds of beholding beyond the common dualism of text and image. It also problematises the imperative of contemporary media technologies to ‘make present’ via the formalisation of touch – all in relation to the role of presence and absence in deltaic mollusc lifeworlds.

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1One evening in early 2019, having just returned from a longer leg of fieldwork in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal, I ran into some acquainted artists. They were busy planning the next issue of the catalogue accompanying their annual art book fair “I Never Read” at Art Basel, Switzerland. Quickly, the recounts of my research on the correspondences between humans, molluscs and spirits in the delta engaged us in a wide-ranging discussion and by the end of the night, I was invited to contribute a visual essay to the catalogue, which itself came to be designed under the theme of molluscs.

2The invitation offered an opportunity to dig deep into the longstanding human fascination for molluscs as alluring and at the same time strange companions. And it allowed to relate this to the contemporary practices with and around molluscs that I had encountered in Senegal. Soon, I had crafted an expansive, if patchy, assemblage of the ways in which humans and molluscs were “going along” with and responding to each other over time as well as across variation and difference (Ingold 2016: 6, 7). My text got populated by molluscs as carriers of myths and as mediums in rituals; as goods of consumption and trade; as currencies or lubricant in the slave trade; as symbols for fertility and guarantors for status and power; as objects of speculation or as inspirations for artistic practice. To weave a red thread into the overabundance, I came to describe these correspondences through the lens of presence and absence, or, visibility and invisibility.

3In the resulting visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” (Simon 2019), printed in A2 format as part of the “I Never Read” catalogue, a broadly spun narration was then combined with a series of three black and white photos depicting mollusc gleaning and processing in the delta. Taking up the textual trope of presence and absence, the distinct material characteristic of the visual essay (as of the whole catalogue) consisted of the photos printed in normal ink. The text was “written” on the photos in Europium. The latter is a rare earth metal that could be experienced, during the act of “reading” both tactilely (by running fingers over the relief of the font) and visually (when charged with additional black-light, see below). On top of it, the catalogue emitted a strong odour. At the launch of the catalogue at the art book fair “I Never Read”, visitors could then enter a darkened wooden cabin and hold the catalogue under blacklight to presence the writing printed in Europium.

Outside the Darkened Wooden Cabin at the "I Never Read" Art Book Fair.

Outside the Darkened Wooden Cabin at the "I Never Read" Art Book Fair.

Photo by Malte Wandel


Inside the Darkened Wooden Cabin at the "I Never Read“ Art Book Fair
Credits : Sandro Simon

5Video link:​760718108

6A few months after the release, I carried a copy of the printed catalogue to Antwerp to present it in the workshop “Crafting the Future of the Visual Essay”. When asked about publishing it, the question quickly arose: how can this printed essay be re-configured for the digital realm. Should it be a reflection on the printed essay or a digital reproduction of it? Together with the editors, we decided for a middle way allowing us to remain within the play of presence and absence (through matter and form) while also providing additional context and analysis.

7And so, this digital visual essay takes some cues from its printed “forebear” and develops it further, while trying to make these processes accessible. The digital visual essay thereby restricts itself to a reworked section on presences and absences in mollusc gleaning and the role of shells in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal. Added is a companion part of about the same length, which provides a reflection on the “original” printed visual essay and on its re-configuration into the digital.

8In academia, we are often little concerned with the medium through which we try to communicate. Design, platform or data format are assumed to be somehow secondary and even more problematically, “neutral”. Yet, these are active parts in our formulations and in the experience of our audiences. Especially with the increased interest in methodologies and forms of representation beyond text, questions around the quality of the medium acquire new relevance. An exploration of a print-to-digital process of a visual essay thus appears to be productive and timely.

9While the printed catalogue was an invitation to conceptually and sensuously inquire into “what print itself can(not) do”, this digital essay is an invitation to inquire into “what digital formats themselves can(not) do”. The first answers were quickly found: the AnthroVision website is not (yet) designed as an open playground for representational experimentation, but seeks to integrate every submission in its standardised and rather static design. Moreover, AnthroVision automatically generates every Portable Document Format file (PDF) after a pre-defined and programmed process beyond the grasp of authors and editors. Together with the editors of this special issue we have decided to create and design a separate PDF file in order to:

10create a visual essay corresponding to the printed essay,

11guarantee the readability of the text contained by the images when zooming into them,

12make the image files less heavy.

13The visual essay in this specifically designed PDF refrains from forms of digital representations such as: optical illusions; kinetic textures and other artistic ways for producing digital sensory interactivity; hyperlinks to other platforms or to other places within the document; requests for commenting, drawing or highlighting; and any motion design. This not only provides a certain formal congruency with the printed catalogue. It also allows for a re-examination of the most familiar presencing-gestures in our everyday digital media engagement and the corresponding functions of scrolling, clicking and zooming in/out. By bringing together reconfiguration and reflection, the digital essay thus seeks to trace the (im)possibilities of print-to-digital synesthetic re-enactment. It reflects on, and invites to probe, different kinds of beholding beyond the common dualism of text and image. It also problematises contemporary media technologies’ imperative of “making present” via the formalisation of touch – all in relation to the role of presence and absence in deltaic mollusc lifeworlds.

14To engage with the visual essay, please follow these steps:

15Visit the page for this essay on the AnthroVision website.

16Download the specifically designed PDF file. (See attachment below).

17Open the file with image-viewing software.

18Now there are two sections: First, the narrative text, “written” across the photos of the differently “charged” printed visual essay. On every photo there are two paragraphs of text, one on the right, one on the left. To read them, you will have to zoom in, whereby you will also dissolve the initial perspective on and of the photos. Secondly, there is the reflective text, “written” across the white surface in a way that might feel more familiar. It is up to you to decide whether you want to first read the narrative text or the reflective one and jump ahead accordingly. Or maybe you even want to shift between the two texts and read the whole document from its beginning to end via continuous scrolling.

Original Essay First Double Page

Original Essay First Double Page

Cited text in the image: Scales (2015); Malinowski (1922); Callon (1986); Hagendorn and Johnson (1986); Simon (2021; n.d); Elo (2012; 2013; 2018); Waldenfels (2002); Ingold (2016); Vigh (2009).

Photo by Sandro Simon

Reflecting on “MOLLusCS + mollUScs”

19The visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” as outlined in the introduction, brought together three photos and an essayistic, patchy narration. This narration followed some of the roles molluscs played and play for humans in the delta and beyond – all through the lens of presence and absence. The photos, depicting mollusc gleaning and processing in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal, transformed into black and white, covered the whole A2 page and provided the surface for the text. Relating the two extremes on the color spectrum, and, by indexing to color, evoking a recourse on personal memory and imagination as well as a sense of time passing, the photos are thereby also linked to the gradual shift of molluscs from color – often black and sometimes grey, brown, red or violet – to white over time due to sunlight-induced bleaching.

20The distinct material characteristics of the text (and its relation to what it narrated) as well as to the photos, was not only that it was directly printed across the photos, but also that it was printed in Europium. Europium is one of the rarest earth elements. It gets mined on land, at sea and, due to its luminosity, it is frequently used in screens or on banknotes. Nearly invisible to the human eye in its basic state, it needs to get charged by additional (black)light to become visible. Consequently, the text of the visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” only becomes visible when the beholder alters the lighting conditions in correspondence with the affordances of the Europium. Furthermore, the catalogue had a pungent odour (similar to fermented and dried sea snails) figuring as an index to the deltaic smells described in the text.

21Assembling essayistic, patchy narration printed in Europium and black and white photos printed in normal ink, “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” hence did not strive for an abstract analysis. It played with the present and the absent through matter and form, and invited the beholders to corporeally explore presence and absence themselves, and at the same time to also reflect on themselves and their relation to the catalogue and the (lightning) circumstances (compare to Eagle, this volume; Prins 2018). This essay took seriously the sensory turn’ and three main concerns in recent visual anthropology, namely to cross boundaries and collaborate, to use new (digital) media and to recognize the full sensorium (Banks and Ruby 2011: 14). Thereby, it addressed the audience as active and self-determined beyond the producers’ own pre-conceptions: one could charge the text with (black)light in a dark room, touch the relief of the font, listen to the sound of one's fingers on the paper, smell the print, let one's eyes meander between the text and image and so forth. Fingers, eyes, nose and ears were all involved in this intimate, individual encounter with the materials and the materiality of the catalogue and with the photos and words of the essay. And so, text and photo and their relations were both cognitively and sensorially explored and performed; turned from “decodable” objects into “explorable” processes.

Presence and Absence

22When picking up a catalogue under common circumstances – i.e., under “normal” lighting conditions – the photos were highly visible and text nearly imperceptible. Only when held under blacklight or charged with normal light and then consumed in relative darkness did the text become readable. For this, at the “I Never Read” Art book fair, a wooden box with black light was installed, which visitors could enter. The text hence initially existed as an undefined horizon’ (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002: 35) and could then literally be “brought to light” once the visitors entered the box, paid attention to it and attended to it materially. During this process, the name of the art book fair “I Never Read” (which jokingly refers to the practice of only leafing through art books and looking at pictures rather than reading text, especially at art book fairs), became somehow graspable.

23Exploring the text under altered lighting conditions, image and text entered into a new relation that resolved the initial linear chronology and dualistic opposition and that was characterized by variability and graduality. Both text or photos could oscillate between figures' and 'backgrounds’ (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002: 35), although without ever becoming stable entities. They existed materially as gradual processes rather than fixed objects. When the photos acted more as figures, the text became a texture in the form of horizontal lines; and when the text acted more as figure, the photos became a mere surface. More precisely, under direct blacklight the images turned purple and were still visible, but the text, now in luminescent green, took the foreground (see the left side of the first photo). Yet, when charged with light or blacklight and then brought into darkness the images were, in contrast, nearly invisible. Here, the text stood out from the dark. Textured partly by the image (meaning that where there were lighter parts in the image) the text was, on that particular spot, brighter too (see the left side of the second photo). Finally, when charged with light or blacklight and then left in normal light, the text would become more visible. Yet, it was still not standing out much from its surface, that is the images (see the right side of the third photo).

24Hence, the material causalities of lighting conditions and the flexibility of the catalogue’s paper as well as individual decisions, actions and sensory perceptions of the beholder influenced the different variants of textual and pictorial correspondence. Thereby, the catalogue itself shifted between medium and object, while the room with its black light, too, fostered a certain narration through scenography (compare for instance to Eagle, this volume). Simultaneously, photography’s ‘scopic regime’ of cartesian perspectivalism, which posits an abstract, quantitatively ordered homogeneous space and renders three-dimensional space into two-dimensional representation, underwent a rupture towards a baroque reason, a playing with dazzling, disorienting, ecstatic visual experience beyond solidity of material surfaces and geometry (Jay 1988: 5, 6, 16).

Original Essay Second Double Page.

Original Essay Second Double Page.

Cited text in the image: Marean et al. (2007); Jerardino and Marean (2010); Hardy et al. (2016).

Photo by Sandro Simon

25In the different graduations, text and image did not merely illustrate one another but remained phenomena in their own right. They retained their individual epistemologies, while generating co-presence and evoking different sensory phenomena (cf. MacDougall 2005). They did not simply merge or become one fixed figurative or textual whole. Yet, they indeed interrelated, both in terms of materiality and meaning, highlighting a shift beyond text-image dualism (see more in Cox et al. 2016). The photos served as the literal surface of the lettering. And where there was lettering, the photos were covered. Their relationship was therefore sedimentary. They did materially mix with the paper (that functioned as the base) and with each other to a certain degree, while also maintaining their individual form. Their material-sedimentary relationship then got reconfigured in the process of the various changes of the light conditions described above, where photos and text were perceptible according to their different reactions to the exposure to (black)light. When illuminated by (black)light and then brought into absolute darkness, the text takes the form of the image. This is the most comprehensive interlocking, with the text embodying the shape of a quasi-fleeting mirror, a synesthetic simulacrum (see the left side of the second photo).

26Unlike the photographs, the text printed in Europium exhibited a twofold characteristic: first, an immediate fluorescent luminosity indicating a change in lighting conditions, and second, a phosphorescent afterglow. This afterglow indexically and materially inhabited what had been as a form of retention, thus bridging past and present. The usage laid open, and thereby also bore witness to a material connection and reconfiguration (think of the Europium's and the ink’s photons) and, quite literally, to a social-performative exposure. In short, gesture and the altering of lighting conditions let the catalogue unfold its diverse experientiality. The interactivity with, or of, the catalogue thereby involved locomotive, as well as a widely distributed sensory, engagement. Furthermore, it relied on a distinct interplay of touch and vision.

27The luminosity of the catalogue could not be experienced by tactility, but one could run over the relief of the luminant font. Tactility and vision thus seemed to complement each other. But there was also tension. For once, there was no correspondence in terms of intensity between haptic relief (that remained static) and visible luminosity (that increased and decreased). They were independent of each other, asymmetrical and non-continuous. And as such, they could evoke a feeling of ambivalence and of a limit; a sense of alienness towards them and also within the beholders themselves. Touch was here, thus more than tactility and sensory certainty. This gesture also encompassed affect: by touching, one is touched (Elo 2012; 2013; 2018, drawing on Waldenfels 2002). Engaging with the catalogue in an open-ended, experimental way could bring forth pathic experiences (Waldenfels 2002). Such pathic experiences, similar to those in mollusc gleaning, included not only the experience of something new, unexpected, but also of absence. There are always parts of the visual essay that remain scarcely luminescent or lit. There are past gestures represented in the Europiums afterglow, yet these are fading and incomplete. Or there is a feeling of otherness towards the chemical “behaviour” of the Europium. In this touching as self-determined exploration of limits, beholders were thus exposing themselves also to the presences and absences of the materials and the materiality of the catalogue – and thereby got touched by them. For the visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs”, materiality was part of the message.

Corresponding Stories

28In terms of what they describe, the three photos in the “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” visual essay depicted three scenes of gleaning and processing molluscs. The text, instead, had gleaning and processing, as well as also wider mollusc-spirit-human correspondences (in and beyond the delta) as its subject matter. It tried to take presences and absences in mollusc lifeworlds as a theme, without relating this explicitly to its form and its relation to the photo. The text only implicitly evoked contemplations and emotions on its relation with the three images and its own presence and absence; it was not interrupted by a meta-analysis, but followed its own chronological narrativity. Something similar happened for the three different photos: in their seriality – which only came to be through the existence of both absences and presences – and in their independence from the text, they acted as a kind of condensation and anchor from which the text could reach out and to which the text remained connected. These photos figured as knots in a wider storyline that included, but was not limited to, the text. They were not taken as mere illustrations of some aspects of a text, showing up here and there while the text flowed on. Rather, they had a distinct narrativity themselves, a narrativity that corresponded with, but was at the same time not dependent on, the text (which, too, followed its own narrativity). Photos and text thus interrelated also in terms of what they were about, while remaining distinct entities. How photos and text corresponded was thus not fixed. It hinged on how the beholders navigated through the two narratives and connected them in the process of engaging with the essay and altering the lighting conditions. Thereby, the processual material relations of text and photos allowed for a certain individuality not only in terms of sensual apprehension, but also of the establishment of meaning.

29At the same time, on the one hand, the text lost a certain authority as a fixed condensate or anthropological reasoning and a guarantor for abstraction, homogenization and generalization (MacDougall 1998). The text was not there per se, but needed to be presenced through the alteration of lighting conditions and possibly maintained, as its luminosity decreased again over a relatively short time span when not exposed to any light.

Original Essay Third Double Page.

Original Essay Third Double Page.

Cited text in the image: Marean et al. (2007); Lafont (1938); Larkin (2013); Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 2002).

Photo by Sandro Simon

30Making the text “available” thus included both ones synergic, emplaced body (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002) beyond the exclusivity of cognition and the materials and materialities of the catalogue. On the other hand, also the photo lost a certain authority, because the text, even when hardly visible, was always known to be there as a possibility to contest, reconfigure or extend the photo. And so, the way language and imagery became present and tangible in the engagement with the “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” visual essay did not only bring out new meaning and revealed an unseen world, pointing one towards ones optical unconscious’ (Benjamin [1931] 1999). The correspondence between text and photo also rendered them as distinct yet situated and ever incomplete entities. It brought forth an experience of the partiality of knowledge as well as of the imperceptibility’ (Lynteris and Stasch 2019: 6) of the world.

Into the Digital

31Re-configuring the visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” for a digital space, the photos of the printed catalogue are employed as surface. They shall represent different lighting states and in/visibilities of Europium-text and images and also transport the bending of the catalogue. Sections of revised or new narrative text on mollusc-spirit-human correspondences in the Sine-Saloum Delta are written over photos of the “original” essay containing both image and text.

32After zooming in on the narrative text sections, the image’s frame dissolves and the common afar-perspective on the image is revoked. The documentary function recedes while the images phenomenology comes to the fore (cf. Didi-Huberman [2003] 2008). It turns into details, or into surface of text and texture made up of areas, dots and shades (compare e.g. to the visual essay of Favero 2017).

33The original text had only figures’ and no backgrounds’ (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002: 35) available. It enacted its own narration word by word, line by line. At the same time, the photographs could show everything in one image and actually consisted of 'figures’ and 'grounds’ (MacDougall 1998: 69). Now one can also read between the lines: by considering the printed text represented in the photo together with the digital text “written” over it, the evolving of the text from the printed to the digital visual essay becomes tangible. The fact that a text has a history, can be rewritten and revised, reflected and abstracted just as it is done all the time, in one way or the other, in writing and publishing, is made transparent. In staying with the principle of sedimentation, another layer of text is laid upon what already exists; a layer that does not conceal its forebears but puts itself in succession and highlights its own emergence. Additionally, this very reflection literally runs along the narrative text as a corresponding, yet distinctive text. This digital re-configuration of text and image is thus about repetition with difference that brings forth new interpretations and new connections. However, as I would like to argue, it also reveals some fundamental shortcomings.

34The re-configuration from the printed to the digital visual essay can be traced along the Europium, which for both print and digital figures as an integral material. Was Europium affording the revealing of text for the printed visual essay, Europium allows the digital visual essay to be visibly present at all: it acts as the material guarantor for the luminosity of screens (unless one prints it out again). The difference is how the visual essay is brought into presence. For the catalogue, hands and fingers were needed to hold it, adjust its position in “charging” it with (black)light. One would move around with the catalogue, bend it and with it images and text, run over the relief of the font or turn the page. Thereby, kinesthesia, hearing and smelling played an important role, while touch stood in a tense, non-synchronous relation with sight (comparable to certain variations of mollusc gleaning, as described). In short, absence was part and parcel of the experience.

35When opening a PDF file, in contrast, the visual essay is already there, with all its elements fixed in position. Little remains to be “brought to light” and one only needs to scroll down, which ideally works seamlessly and along a clearly defined “path of solution”. This, after Elo (2018: 53), could be related to contemporary media technologies– and so also the PDF files’ – imperative of “making present”, to eliminate the effect of spatio-temporal distances and immediately bring things to our fingertips. Moreover, for the digital essay, smell is completely abandoned, kinesthesia is reduced and sound is relegated to the contact with the device, while sight and touch are reconfigured. Hands and fingers support sight in an ends-oriented logic: gestures are directed towards enabling functions of scrolling, clicking or zooming in/out, or, a pre-conceived way to presence the visual essay and to give access to text. Touch, here, is more about tactile synchronicity and confirmation than the exploration of frictions and limits. Falling together with the abandonment of smell, reduction of kinesthesia and relegation of sound, the narrowing of touch then affects the possibility to experience the pathic.

36This is indeed no accident, for as mouses, trackpads, screens or keyboards are designed for an optimal feedback and guidance towards the one envisioned goal. To increase the sense of instantaneity, proximity and realism, touch is formalized as an objective sense and detached from its affective qualities (Vasseleu 1999, cited after Elo 2013: 96, 97). It is integrated into a system of digital mediation that restricts the testing of limits (Elo 2012: 10; 2013: 93). In the translation into a digital visual essay, touch is thus altered towards haptocentrism, i.e., towards a seamless co-operation between vision and touch, with touch as a provider of tangible reality and a support of optical intuitionism (Elo 2018: 54, drawing on Derrida [2000] 2005). Thereby, certain gestures and ways of making contact and staying in contact are prioritized, making touch more manageable and programmable within a digital system (Elo 2018: 54, 56). This, indeed, is fundamentally different from the described open ended and highly self-determined engagement that the printed visual essay afforded.

37Yet, in the beholding of this digital visual essay, there still remains a grain of ambivalence that destabilizes the objectivity of tactility and that gives room for surprise and sentience. Sometimes the devices we employ might not run that smoothly or according to our expectations and/or our physical engagements. Or we come to realize here or there that life is not fully tangible in the experiential horizon of digital technology (cf. Elo 2013). And so, I hope this digital visual essay has provided some insights into human-mollusc-spirit correspondences in the Sine-Saloum Delta, Senegal as well as an impression of the “original” printed visual essay “MOLLusCS + mollUScs” and its specific experiential characteristics. I also hope that it has shed some light on the (im)possibilities of print-to-digital synaesthetic re-enactment. On the other hand, maybe this experiment can also be taken as an invitation to explore and experiment with forms of representation beyond the limitations of formats such as Portable Document Format (PDF) or JPEG File Interchange Format (JFIF) and the prerogative of the digital.

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List of illustrations

Title Outside the Darkened Wooden Cabin at the "I Never Read" Art Book Fair.
Credits Photo by Malte Wandel
File image/jpeg, 629k
Title Original Essay First Double Page
Caption Cited text in the image: Scales (2015); Malinowski (1922); Callon (1986); Hagendorn and Johnson (1986); Simon (2021; n.d); Elo (2012; 2013; 2018); Waldenfels (2002); Ingold (2016); Vigh (2009).
File image/jpeg, 1.1M
Title Original Essay Second Double Page.
Caption Cited text in the image: Marean et al. (2007); Jerardino and Marean (2010); Hardy et al. (2016).
Credits Photo by Sandro Simon
File image/jpeg, 906k
Title Original Essay Third Double Page.
Caption Cited text in the image: Marean et al. (2007); Lafont (1938); Larkin (2013); Merleau-Ponty ([1945] 2002).
Credits Photo by Sandro Simon
File image/jpeg, 848k
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Electronic reference

Sandro Simon, Presence and Absence in Mollusc Lifeworlds and Visual EssaysAnthrovision [Online], Vol. 8.2 | 2020, Online since 31 August 2022, connection on 06 December 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sandro Simon

University of Cologne

Sandro Simon is a PhD candidate and research associate in the Emmy Noether Junior Research Group “Volatile Waters and the Hydrosocial Anthropocene (DELTA)”, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and located at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Cologne. His research interests encompass multispecies relations, water, work, body and multimodal methodologies and forms of representation.

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