This Project Is Incomplete follows my creative process over the last four months and the challenges I faced trying to be creative during COVID-19. It's also a piece about connection, creativity, pain, the process of the creator. 
At this point, I should probably add a picture of myself. I don't know if anyone's ever going to see any of this, other than my outstanding professor. I probably shouldn't throw her name in here, but she's very wonderful and patient. 
This is pretty much the only good photo I have of myself.
To introduce myself, my name is Arpit Nigam. At the moment, I happen to be a third-year Photography major at OCAD U (they are really picky about the space between "OCAD" and the "U"). Most of my work centres around mental health and concepts more or less related to it. It can also be about other things, generally about social justice, equality, equity, or other cool ideas. 
My projects started off in my notebook, where I was just throwing concepts at the wall, trying to figure out what I wanted to create. These notes help paint a picture of where the ideas for my projects this semester started from. Documenting my creative process was going to be a much longer format assignment, so I focused on thinking about smaller concepts to use in my other projects this semester. 
I started this semester off with a lot of energy. I was happy to be moving forward with a clean slate. The previous semester had gone reasonably well, so I was optimistic about where I could go this semester. 
It was a pleasant start to the semester, but it's also where many of the challenges began. Just listen to this naïve little scamp in his proposal for this project:
With this piece of work, I am looking to explore and document my creative process, using various media (image, text and audio) to document the ways I think, my thought processes and how they collide with COVID-19. This piece is somewhat autobiographical, and it plays with Reflexive, Observational and Poetic documentary modes. 
As COVID has made in person presentations impractical, I am designing the project to be presented online in an article format. Materials will be presented in a mostly linear order, documenting how my ideas started for the various projects I am working on this semester, using various materials like scans of my notebook, to contact sheets, image selections, to links to the final projects themselves. This process will also be interspersed with text and audio clips exploring my thought process and how I was feeling throughout the process. 
I shouldn't be too hard on myself. I have the advantage of being able to look back on things in retrospect. I had a lot of momentum going into this semester. Still, COVID had eaten away at a lot of my capacity for dealing with the stresses in general. As with many things that have to do with me, the self-doubt started to kick in, and I struggled to develop ideas past their initial stages. Self-doubt tends to be my biggest enemy, but it also leads to interesting pivots, often adding complexity.
My first project for this semester was called PLACELESSNESS, and about the feeling of not belonging, both in literal and conceptual spaces. The project was a reflection of my headspace. I felt as though I was stuck in a place where I felt like I didn't belong—disconnection from my friends and my community, which often work to keep me grounded. I felt an overwhelming feeling of being lost, not having a place in the world around me.
There aren't very many images from this period; I hadn't shot very many, and I also didn't have many ideas to work through. I think the shots above capture my mood pretty well. It was a very depressing time, and it hit me all of a sudden, almost out of nowhere. This period gets dark, both in the unhappy, bad mental health sense and from a lack of information perspective. This time also has some pretty significant gaps in my memory, making it much harder to work on a documentary project. I've got to rely on sporadic notes I had written for myself and various context. Forcing myself to explore the spaces my mind had blanked out can often be a bad time.
If you have sensitivities towards self-harm or discussion of suicide, you may want to skip reading the following image. Kinda helps that my handwriting is horrible when I'm writing for myself, at least in this instance.
So yeah, not a very good time.
Lost doesn't begin to describe how I was feeling at this point. COVID was getting worse around the country, and the feeling of being trapped continued to escalate. The sense of not belonging was pretty entrenched into my thought process. I wasn't being particularly optimistic because of the isolation I was feeling. The self-doubt around my project ideas was powerful. At this point, the images I had at this point weren't great, causing me to just spiral down into a pit of existential dread. 
I wasn't happy with my progress through the semester. I had stalled creatively and wasn't able to produce any substantial work, or in some cases, any work at all. I was trying my best, but the concepts I wanted to work with were just more and more depressing. The self-doubt was eating me whole. 
Creatively and personally, I was lost. Even the images for this documentary were uninspiring and bland. I wasn't able to find a format or concept that made me feel happy to create it...
It was just sort of this pit of despair; Of hating on myself. 
The feeling of being stranded creatively isn't something especially new. Still, the way it took over and dismantled my creative and personal drive was. I guess I can see that in the above images. The work on the wall is work that I like and that I have made. Whether it's for visual or conceptual reasons, it's work that I feel drawn to. 
I hadn't made anything like that in a long time. Something worth printing and putting up. Even the photo book I had created was just a restructuring of my previous work. Placelessness was also complicated; it wasn't straightforward to visualize. I mean, what is nothing? What is the lack of a feeling? Even the absence of a feeling is defined by the emotion itself. What or where is a place that I belong? 
So I started to shoot what was visible to me. I started to go looking for the things that I could try to visualize. If you can't see the singularity, maybe it's possible to observe the remnants that it leaves behind. 
So I started to shoot. I went looking for the opposite of the concept of Placelessness. I was just trying to ask myself questions that would hopefully help me answer the question: What am I looking for exactly? What does Placeless look like?
I was just throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks. If I didn't make anything, I was going to be pretty screwed. That was one of the many stresses that were making it really hard to create. Every day that passed, I lost more and more time to create work, which only increased the pressure I had imposed on myself even more. 
Whenever I'd try to start work on something, all I got was just a jumble of thoughts. I lost energy exponentially whenever I tried to explore those thoughts, and the more likely it became that I'd run into a thought that'd derail me completely. It sounds like it seems relevant, then bam, it rips your attention away until you can't focus on anything but it. 
If not Placelessness, then where is home?
At the very least, it would make Boki happy to know that [I'm doing better] and that's what I need right now.
I don't think I knew it at the time, but this line my project altogether. I started to look for answers to my questions. I focused on the gaps between the thoughts and feelings of isolation. I focused on the places where I wasn't isolated, on the areas in my mind where I didn't feel disconnection, and I started to create. 
This was the pivot. I didn't want to focus on the negative. I couldn't handle that anymore; it was so depressing and only helped me dig a bottomless pit.
My project shifted to capturing the places that made me feel like I belonged. The concept of home can be a complicated topic, especially for someone with a history of trauma (such as myself). What does home look like? 
I started by running with the literal interpretation of spaces where I belonged. Well, this is one of the spaces that fit those criteria. It's not a staged image, and to me, it's very visually intriguing, but what about this space makes this place home? What is a home? What makes a house or apartment a home? 
I started to ask myself what about the spaces, the places and the circumstances I have found myself in have made me feel like where I am today is home, or have I even approached it? How do I interact with that concept?
It was a very repetitive process; I started to think about and grapple with the concept of home and what it might mean to me. Things started out pretty basic, but the more I began to think about the idea, the more confusing and complicated it became. What are the structures and concepts of home? 
What makes a place a home? How did COVID change that? How did those spaces change? What were the dynamics of this place? How were things influenced by these changes? 
I had lots of questions, but they didn't really help me build up the idea of home... I needed to try setting a foundation for what I wanted. That was much easier said than done, and I still had this feeling of being adrift in this vast ocean and yet locked in place. 
I was stuck doing the same things over and over again, one day blended into the next, and it was just this grey lump of fucking nothing. There were very few things to do each day and very little motivation to do them. 
One of the things that I do every day, almost as a ritual, is making coffee when I wake up. 
It's a very comfortable process for me; it's relaxing.
It's a space, not just in the physical world, but in my mind where I know I can find something that I enjoy. I can work through the routine and remain present, taking a great deal of care in every step. From making sure I grind my beans just right to adding just enough water, sugar and milk to get the perfect rich, chocolatey taste. Oh, and don't forget the 4 ice cubes to make sure it's still hot but much more pleasant to drink right away.
I know what that headspace is like, but why am I so drawn to it? Why this routine? Why do I know my mug is always just in my reach? Why does it bring me such comfort?
Is it something about the coffee? Or is it about the act of making it?
Even now, I find myself asking questions about these things. You could probably guess what's sitting in front of me right now, safely off of my desk mat so that it doesn't get spilt. All I know is that this is a space, and to me, my mug of coffee helps make this space one where I belong. It's a curious relationship I have with my mind, and I'm not sure if I'll ever find the answers to my questions. Sometimes I find myself able to remember certain things that change how I feel about this space and others. Other times it's the inability to remember, which can change how I perceive a space.
I created this composite image because these are the movements I repeat every day. It's something drilled into my mind and something that I cannot forget. I remember the fluidity of these motions, and rigidity which creates an unusual choreography. 
I'm not sure why I chose these specific frames, but it makes me ask myself questions. Which version of me made this image, and what influenced him in those moments?
To me, this is a very cerebral process of creation. I'm never sure why I follow it, but it sometimes provides me insight into my own mind. 
Then I take a breath, and I move forward.
I don't even know why I chose to write the words I've written. These choices for me can be so different based on what I remember at the time. Memory gets complicated for me because I don't always have access to it. Sometimes I can forget some pretty ordinary things, but I do find comfort in these routines. Coffee grounds me, it's a comfortable place, yet I'm left with questions.
Sorry to interrupt, but ladies and gentleman, I know it feels like things just started, but we're in the end game now. It's time to cross your I's and dot your T's. It's an abrupt change of pace, but we have to get things moving now.
This semester really did feel like it went by in a flash, and I think everyone was dealing with a lot. I know around this time is when the university was planning on allowing students to drop classes without academic consequences until the last day of classes or something along those lines.
Oh yeah, the other classes I was taking, I forgot to mention them, didn't I? Well, that's for an excellent reason. If Placelessness/Home was any indication, I was having an awful time creatively. Sequence, Multiples and Text was the class I was going the best in, illustrating how behind I was. My other classes were a blood bath, and frankly, I didn't think I would pass any of my classes this semester. 
It was around now that I realised I was about to be remarkably fucked if I proceeded with my original plan to finish with 4 classes. We were allowed to drop courses up until the last day of class was a good indication that this semester would be a blood bath for everyone. I had heard that the registrar's office was swamped. However, it was also around now that I learned that they were still dealing with administrative stuff from last semester. Yeah... I cannot imagine the immense pressure they must be under. Hell, the pressure after the winter semester will only make their workload/backlog even worse.
I had to cut my losses and just pick two or three classes to stick with. I had some progress and ideas for Home, so that's one class nailed down. Same with this documentary, so that was another. I ended up dropping that third class because I knew that keeping these two boats above water would be hard enough. Did I mention that my prof for these two classes is fantastic and really patient? Yes? Well, it's worth saying again. I'm lucky to have had a small number highly influential in my life, and I think she goes down in that book for me. 
I had been planning and thinking about this project for a while, and I realised that I had to just start making it. I shoot through my ideas, and that's the thing that this documentary taught me. It also made me reconsider what documentary is. Oh yeah, that's the name of the other class, Reconsidering Documentary. This pun brings me an unreasonable amount of joy. 
My god, the above image is such cringe. It's the most, "yup, they're high schoolers," image I have on my Facebook account. At least I hope it is...
Working on this project, I began to think about creating and what I found to be fun about it. I remember running around Toronto with my friends in high school with maybe $20. We'd spend the whole day out, shooting random stuff, going to unusual places and doing our best to get home. 
We made so many random images or videos or things, and we'd post basically everything to Facebook or whatever. It's a period that helped me to hone my skills. It also was a period where I enjoyed the process of creation more than ever. Just running around, having fun with friends, doing and creating whatever. I wasn't after technical perfection, but I gained those skills along the way. There was no plan; there was just, "Hay, I'm headed to Toronto, want to come?"
I realised how much I loved my old equipment, not because it was good, but because each piece of my kit was whatever I could get my hands on. Although value did play a role, it didn't have to be good; it was about expanding what I could do. I wasn't after perfect; I was after pushing my creative and technical boundaries. It was so much fun, and I definitely banged up my stuff a lot.
Those first pieces of equipment are still fabulous and hold so much value to me. They helped me learn so much, and without them, I wouldn't be here today. I wanted to show them the peak of my technical skill, honour them and show them as they deserve to be displayed.
It was a lesson on something every photographer learns, probably early on in their career. There's a shoot, and you overlook something essential, which ends in the same lesson: REMEMBER TO SANITY CHECK YOUR SHIT. It's an old lesson, but one I seemed to have forgotten for this shoot, and possibly others, but this time it bit me.
This shoot definitely went exceptionally poorly. Basically, anything that could go wrong went wrong. For some reason, the software I was using didn't copy the images onto my computer. Still, they were also not written to the card. 
All in all, I lost about 2 hours to that weird issue, and it would have been much less if I double-checked after the first few images. The first hour was building up the lighting and taking photos along the way. The second hour was to troubleshooting before switching over to another software to capture my work and share it on a bigger screen to check focus and things. 
Eventually, I managed to get the shots I wanted, and it didn't take very long because I had finished building up the set. I'm glad I double checked everything before disassembling the set. If I hadn't double-checked, it would have been a difficult morning or afternoon when I sat down to work, only to learn that they weren't saved. 
The process of editing was also relatively simple. I just did my best to put together images that highlighted scuffs and scars and things. 
Also, hay, I know this image is a very short inbetweener paragraph. Still, you'll understand why in the post-image reflective paragraph thing. 
​​​​​​​Me words good.
The feeling I got after this shot was all said and done was similar to the feeling I felt with making my coffee, but it wasn't quite the same. I know these objects hold a special place in my heart, and I was happy to make them look good again; however, it just wasn't the same as using that equipment. Also, it didn't really work visually. My other images have much more dramatic lighting, and the combination between the subject and the background didn't help matters. 
If I had another chance to shoot this, I would have gone with another shot, or a different set, versus a really minimalist-style top-down shot. Maybe something more in line with a macro shot? This shot would still have felt more one-note in comparison to the others.
If I had more time, I would have spent more time in the active idea generation and test shoot stage. The end of the semester was looming, and the increasing stress of the third wave of COVID only made it harder to come up with creative new ideas. I tend to be a perfectionist, which is great for a shot like this, but at the same time, this shot took more out of me than I think the outcome rewarded. Even reflecting on this image, I don't have much to say, which is the final nail in the coffin for it. This image isn't one that I'd print and put on my wall. After this documentary is done, it's probably not one that I would revisit on my own time. 
Maybe when I go through my archives one day, I'll see it again. If that's the case, hello, future me!
Which is what brings us to the final image for this project. 
No contact sheet for this one, lads. 
There are quite a lot of images that exist that can fit into the space that this image is in for me. I had many screenshots I'd like to use, both of Boki and my ex-girlfriend Slowly (not her real name). Slowly and I are still close, but I don't think she would want me to use them for a variety of reasons (which I won't share for her privacy). 
There are very few images that I thought about as much as I did what I wanted in the place of this one. I know it's cliche, but I haven't really felt like I fit in anywhere with the groups of people I was around. I haven't had very many friends, and I also found it hard to relate to people in other institutions (primarily because of the trauma, as mentioned earlier). It was only really after leaving high school that I met the people that I value most in my life. Slowly I met in the gap year I took between high school and university, and Boki I met on the first day of university. Both these people, to me, are home. I relate to them, and they, to myself. We've had long talks, and laughed, and cried, and been angry, with each other. They're the people I'm closest to. Boki significantly helped to keep me grounded during COVID, and I'm happy to have had her keep an eye out for me. I don't think I've had a best friend until I met Boki.
This image is pretty much how I see Boki when I think about her. If I tried to distil it down into a single image, I think it would be like this. She's always been someone that I can laugh with, even in the worst of times. Pretty much all of the time we spend together ends with laughter. 
I haven't been able to see and find time to spend with the other members of our friend group since COVID. I think we all ended up scattering thanks to a tough time keeping up with our own lives throughout the pandemic. Still, with the end being so close, we've started reaching out and making plans. 
I don't really have the words to communicate what it's like to have friends I want to keep and ones that I feel aren't out of circumstance. There's a lot of fear and happiness there. It's still a process I'm working through, so I don't think the current me has grown enough to reflect on these things just yet. 

Well, that's it. This was the final layout for the sequence/collage for the project. A couple of others ended up hitting the cutting room floor, but the one above was the one I'm happiest with.
Actually, hold that thought...
Yeah, in retrospect, I'm really not a fan of how the equipment image looked. The final composition of this image works so much better. The balance and the tone seem to work so much better, except maybe the screenshot of Boki. 
This documentary really helped to change the way I view my creative process. Looking back through my old notes, and giving myself time to digest them more, was really helpful. It changed my outlook from being purely functional to being about using them to evolve how my process works. 
While this documentary focused on just this one project through its development, it's something that I might continue, but with my practice. Although that might have to wait a while. Once my projects for this semester are done, I will take a bit of a break from digital photography. A lot of things came together at once. After the last two years of digital work-related stress, I think I'm going to put down my digital camera for a while to build a healthier relationship with photography. 
I will probably shoot some new projects on film, but that's something for future me to figure out. After around 4100 words, though, this project is complete—one more to go.
-Arpit Nigam May 5th 2021
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