From April to August 2020 I, and a group of three other photographers (David Babaian, Andrew Blowers, Sagar Kharecha), documented the situations we found ourselves facing in what we agreed to be the most surreal summer of our lives so far. We used black and white 35mm film and decided early on that our efforts would ultimately be collated into a zine—a perfect medium for the kind of stories we found ourselves telling.
“Bardo refers to the ‘in-between’ existence many of us found ourselves in, somewhere between normality and absolute breakdown. We felt this would be a good title for the kind of story we wanted to bring out from this situation. ”
A zine is usually a limited, self-published collection of ideas, artworks, writings, and in our case, photographs. Classic zine culture tends to embrace methods that are a little rough-around-the-edges, and examples with clear DIY elements are usually the ones where you can feel the most passion from the creators. This makes them a more refined, personal piece, as opposed to mainstream published photo books—hardback, heavy, cold.
August 31st was a hard deadline for us—everything we had shot from April until 23:59 on that day would be up for consideration for inclusion. We had shot for hundreds of hours, across hundreds of rolls and needed to find an efficient way to cut down this material until we were left with a streamlined, flowing narrative—a coherent and collective thread told across photographs from all four of us sequenced as one continuing, run-on sentence.
We decided to start by producing a set of around 90 postcard-sized prints each, based on our own values—the photographs which stood out to us as containing storytelling potential. This meant absolute ten out of tens, as well as quieter transitional images which would be the glue connecting those more powerful frames.
We met up with these postcards, just over 400 in total, and dedicated an entire day to studying our selection, finding patterns, and stringing this thing together. We started by breaking the pile down into portrait and landscape images. This was because we wanted to decide on whether the orientation would be based around a portrait or landscape format. There turned out to be many more landscape images, so that decided our orientation for us.
From here it was a process of shuffling and dividing the ‘deck’ between the four of us, and then working through and acting as each others curator in order to distil down to a purer selection. We did this a few times, at first silently, and then shared between each other in order to justify our decisions. This allowed us to quickly cull just over half of our images, leaving us with the remaining pile to start working on ordering via diptychs and sequencing.
Sequencing worked almost like a card game, where we sorted our distilled selection based on theme, content, and energy, and then worked on playing from our hand based on what had previously been set down. This part was like piecing together a jigsaw, or composing a melody—hit the emotional highs, then bring the mood down in order to raise it back up again for another peak. Not every image needed to be a hard-hitting, powerful individual piece—moments of calm and moments of peace effectively lead the reader from one idea to the next, from one sequence to the next, until the last page.
This entire process of curation and sequencing really benefitted from having those printed postcards in hand; a digital workflow would have taken a lot longer. The process of moving things around physically, to begin with, made the construction of our prototype immensely easy.
We took our completed sequences and used blu-tack to start to stick them into the blank pages of an art-notebook I had on my shelf. As soon as it started to come together like this we realised that a few decisions were obvious, while others worked less well when actually seen in the mockup.
From here we finessed our choices and constantly flicked between pages, in order to examine what ideas were echoed, which double-page spreads could offer to mirror previous sets of portraits, how square images could correspond with accompanying traditionally rectangular images.
Constructing this physical prototype was the best way to set ourselves up for a smooth transition of encoding the sequence into a digital file, which would, in turn, be sent to our chosen printers, Mixam.
I collected together the jpg files of all of the images and numbered them based on their order in the draft, and then began to set up the document within the Affinity Publisher software. Setting up the document was easy—I knew the exact number of spreads, the required 3mm bleeds, and the print DPI. We’d decided on an A4 size for final print, as this would be large enough to really allow people to appreciate the content of the images. I actually made a mistake when setting up the document, and set the bleed at 5mm. Luckily I was able to make global changes to the file having already started to place my content, so I didn’t need to go back and do it all again—just use the document set-up tab to adjust to the required dimensions.
I am already familiar with using Affinity Photo for my film scan workflow, and transitioning between Photo and Publisher was very intuitive. I like the security of owning a permanent license, and as this zine represents only the start of what will hopefully be many publications we produce as a group, and also that I’d like to work on as an individual, it was an investment that made sense, and one that has definitely paid off so far!
After the blank book file existed I was able to place the images with great ease—dragging and dropping files until each page had its content. After this I went through and resized everything to fit into a grid I’d constructed—I wanted uniformity between the different page types, whether that was full-page, a sequence of portrait images, or contact sheet/write up examples.
Something I hadn’t accounted for was our individual preference when it came to scanning our negatives, which meant I had to work around slightly different aspect ratios when ideally everything would be either 3x2 or 1x1. Next time I will make sure we all standardise this individually before I accept any contributors files—lesson learned.
The front cover was constructed entirely within Affinity Publisher, a simple case of arranging elements based on the rough copy I’d sketched out during our group meeting. Translating the concept we’d come up with onto the digital page was really fun to experience, and I’m really satisfied with the minimal and intriguing result.
Once things were mostly in place I exported a draft and sent it over to Mixam, who were very helpful in offering some pointers. Affinity Publisher made details like printers marks very easy to add to this sort of preview file, and from here the final touches needed became clear.
Written sections were still in the works—Andrew and Sagar provided personal opinion pieces to offer insight into their work. These were first drafted, then handwritten and scanned, then placed alongside the images and contact strips they were discussing.
I had chosen to leave my written contribution to just the introductory statement/vision piece. The way we’d sequenced the images meant that in my opinion the entire story can be understood based on images only—a diverse selection of images which cover not only the themes of social change and unrest that many of us experienced over the titular Summer of ’20 but also situations of hope and joy—vibrant scenes of day to day life in locations ranging from suburban ‘normalcy’ to nomadic woodland encampments.
The final zine, in just under 90 photographs, leads the reader through peace and conflict, satire and serious commentary. Our decision to tell this story through print was essential to our belief in grassroots and community journalism. The idea of a free press means that anyone can own and operate a print-based operation—to produce in the most democratic sense their own pressed papers containing the stories they have worked towards. Anyone with a cheap LaserJet should be able to produce a piece of work like this—but to really refine and simplify the process a straightforward digital workflow is really important.
Our collaboration on this project extends from conceptualising ideas for situations we can photograph all the way through to working with software to produce the final digital file. While the curation and prototyping occurred physically all of the finer details were really nailed through Affinity Publisher, which enabled us to quickly share drafts with one another, make changes live during facetime chats where I shared my screen with them so that they could comment in real-time as the pieces fell into place.
This entire project has been an incredible learning exercise for all of us—and it really paid off when we held that first test copy in our hands. The pride in this project, and in our ability to work collaboratively on such a showcase, in which we all pull our own weight, was powerful to feel. We hope that our readers feel something similar as they look through the content of the images, and the thoughts that accompany them!
About the creators
New Exit Group formed in 2019 with the intention of applying classic documentary photography values to tell local, personal stories around Britain. Their founding members are David Babaian, Andrew Blowers, Sagar Kharecha, and Simon King. Their debut Zine, BARDO: The Summer of ’20, will be available to buy via this link newexitgroup.com/print from mid-November! Stay tuned on their Instagram for further announcements!