I suggested the other day that meaningful relates to the photographer, not the viewer and went on to suggest that perhaps meaningful might well not become apparent until well into a photographic project, and that photographers who shoot a little of this, a little of that, might never reach the meaningful threshold. There are photographers who do produce some lovely work, simply trying this and that. Kertesz comes to mind as someone who didn't seem to have specific projects yet Chez Mondrian is one of my all time favourite photographs so I guess I'm arguing against myself - mind you kertesz took a lifetime of photographs and is known mostly for a dozen or so images and although I think Chez Mondrian exquisite, I'm not sure that I'd call it a meaningful photograph.
This raises the question as to whether a photograph even has to be meaningful. Perhaps it's like a lot of other common characteristics of good photographs, it helps but is neither essential nor sufficient to make a great photograph - it's just one of many things that could be included to make a great image.
It's quite possible for a photographer to select a subject that he or she thinks will be meaningful to others. This seems to completely contradict what I said in the first article on meaningful. But bear with me.
As a photographer I could choose to photograph one of the "hot" topics - poverty, disease, pain, war, pollution and so on. One could make the argument that this is what Burtynsky did, but when you read about Edward Burtynsky, you find out that he's been photographing the effect of the environment on the landscape since the mid 1980's, long before environment was popular and certainly before he could have reasonably predicted that he'd make big bucks off of selling images of tire piles and rust and what not. To stick with a project for 23 years means that you are involved in it at a fundamental level - it has meaning for you - you are dedicated to it - you are willing to see it through slumps and doubts and failures. Is it any surprise that after this much effort, we can see the meaning in his images.
I think that one could pick a "hot" topic and the quality of the images, the meaninfullness of them is likely to be tied to the comittment made to the project. After all, war photographers clearly choose to go into danger and can produce meaningful work. What I suspect doesn't work very often is to decide at 3 pm to shoot poverty, head down town and onto the wrong side of the tracks, cruise the back alleys, shoot a few bums and come home proclaiming meaningful images.
To me, meaningful goes along with understanding of your subject, a sympathy for it, or at least for the problem it illustrates, it's tied to caring and trying and enduring and repeating and making an effort and sticking to it through thick and thin, then the images can be thought of as meaningful.
Sure I can casually go shoot a bum, but really - what are the odds of showing you anything new or meaningful in such an exercise - it didn't mean anything to me, why should I anticpate you are going to fall over yourself exclaiming it's deep meaning.
Even if you do choose to thoroughly explore one of the more "hot" or "classic" or "politically correct" or "controversial" topics, you can't know who's going to respond or how - you might make predictions about how likely it is that some people will respond to the images, but can't make any prediction about how any one person will perceive them. This is something to be well considered when submitting for publication - in general you are hoping that one person will see something in your images that makes them meaningful for themselves. Given that many people are hitting them up with "meaningful" subjects such as the starving and aids victims and so on, maybe you really don't want to do the obvious and just perhaps your chance of making a difference, of getting published, of creating a powerful body of work will depend on you finding meaning in your project.