you think of yourself as a photographer artist or at least a 'Serious' photographer, someone who wants his or her images to mean something. You are looking for your next photographic project. What on earth are you going to pick for a subject so that you can be taken seriously as a photographer.
You decide to look at some current magazines for ideas on what others consider 'Serious' photography. You look at the latest Silvershotz - pictures of lightbulbs, hmmn... You flip over to Phot'art and half the pictures are more or less fashion shots, many of the rest odd quirky images highly dependent on gimicky technique - gee, this is getting a bit discouraging. You look at the latest Lenswork, at least here you see many portfolios showing the traditional values of image craft - well made images beautifully printed - subjects are pretty traditional - cathedrals, nudes, portraits, grain elevators?
In the end you really aren't any further ahead in finding a subject - either it doesn't appeal, looks kitchy or its a great idea but someone just did it and published it so not much scope there - at least for now.
Perhaps if we stop and think about what meaningful actually means, when referring to a meaningful collection of images. Well, I think right off that the whole point is for the images to be meaningful to you the photographer. You have not the right, privilege or ability to pick what is meaningful for me, the viewer. That's up to me to decide. Frankly after looking through the latest images in Phot'Art, my response is 'not too many images are meaningful for me'.
So the images have to mean something to you the photographer, and you don't have to make any consideration at all to whether they are meaningful to me the viewer. Of course doing meaninful work and doing work that is likely to get recognition are two entirely different subjects, though I do think the better editors can see when images mean something to the photographer - there is an intensity, vision, direction, message, or style that says this subject meant something to the photographer and he put his heart and soul into doing his best with it.
I'm guessing that Ann Geddes makes a lot more money with her cute baby pictures than say Michael Kenna, though I'd bet on Michael being remembered far longer.
Anyway, getting back to the subject and the images meaning something to the photographer you can see where the problem lies - the harder you have to think of a subject to photograph, the less likely it is that it's going to have deep personal meaning for the photographer, the more artificial the idea of what to photograph, the greater the chance that in choosing it, you have inadvertantly slipped back into trying to decide what will be meaningful for others.
What if it doesn't work that way? What if the meaning comes after you have been photographing a subject for a while and it starts to fascinate you and you find yourself going back and back for more, trying harder and harder to get the best out of the subject? What if it's the actual process of exploring any subject that makes it meaningful? This might explain why people who flit from subject to subject, never really exploring any one subject, don't tend to make any meaningful images - perhaps the very definition of meaningful precludes little of this little of that type photographers from creating meaningful work, or at the very least makes it a whole lot less likely.
Virtually every photographer I admire put a lot of effort into exploring his or her subject - whether it's Edward Weston's nudes or the quiet landscapes of Paul Caponigro, the native portraits of Phil Borges or the misty elegant and simple landscapes of Michael Kenna, they all spent a lot of time working on their chosen topics. Of course Ansel took grand landscapes - he hiked thousands of miles and was out in the wilderness for weeks at a time - probably putting more wilderness mileage in than 100 average modern tree hugging landscape photographers.
So, perhaps in the end it doesn't really matter what you photograph next - pick something, anything, and see where it leads you. Perhaps you'll get one or two nice images, but just maybe the subject will affect your dreams and drive you crazy and make you burn midnight oil and appreciate people you wouldn't normally give the time of day to. Just maybe the meaning is in the dedication and the dedication is in the meaning and it just happens, or not. If it doesn't happen, then you move onto the next idea.
Perhaps I'll write next about what to do if none of your ideas turns into dedication or meaningful images - does that mean your ideas aren't clever enough, or does it say more about your own attitudes and curiosity and energy?