Dexter McLean is a London-based, Jamaican photographer whose work focusses on identity and issues of representation. In his most recent body of work, shown here, McLean re-visited the area he grew up in; Tower Avenue, Jamaica - a place where he describes life as difficult and full of hardship but home nonetheless, a place with a sense of community like no other.
McLean recently graduated from his MA in Photography from Middlesex University. Through lockdown he has been working on a commission for Autograph ABP which will be exhibited at the Autograph gallery in London in September 2021.
William Lakin: Tell us a bit about your background and how you began photographing.
Dexter McLean: I was born in Jamaica, where I lived for nine years. I went to two different disabled schools in Jamaica and had very little support, I had to walk on my knees all the time. I came to the UK when I was nine years old and started attending a disabled school when I was eleven. It was the first time that I saw so many disabled people together and I remember in school there was only one guy who understood the way I talked.
Then I went to college, I remember when I went for the interview I was told I wasn’t ready to start the course, they wanted me to go back to my old school for two years to get better grades. After some deliberation and support from my school they finally accepted me. When I left that college the person who had initially told me I wasn’t ready to attend bought some of my images from me.
I then went to university. Middlesex was the only university that gave me an interview and when I showed my portfolio my interviewer nearly cried – it included a project where I pictured my life if I had never come to the UK; thinking about what my life would be like now. I remember in one of my images I had put tape over my mouth because I wouldn’t have had any voice in Jamaica.
My university experience was very good, I pushed myself and did some projects with the disabled community that I was really passionate about. My favourite work from university was a project where I posed nude. Disabled people are rarely shown in a sexual way. I think it really showed what I am about, I am disabled, there is nothing you can do to me, you can’t change me, I am disabled.
"I was tired. I was tired of uni. I think I needed one year off to come back with a new eye. That year helped me out a lot, to walk away and come back. I was trying to raise some money to go to Jamaica, but it never really happened and then I was tired and I had had enough of it."
WL: Thinking about all the work you made at university, I think that the nudes were definitely the most ambitious and the most challenging work, I think that they did something a little bit different to the other work you made, the other work you made felt more like a of celebration of difference - you photographed disabled athletes and school kids - but I think the shoot you did with the nudes was more challenging and it felt more confrontational, it felt more like you were forcing the viewer to see.
WL: Did you go straight into studying for your MA?
DM: I tried to initially but in the January after I started I deferred for one year because I was fed up. I didn’t really make any work in that year.
WL: What caused you to take the year off?
DM: I was tired. I was tired of uni. I think I needed one year off to come back with a new eye. That year helped me out a lot, to walk away and come back. I was trying to raise some money to go to Jamaica, but it never really happened and then I was tired and I had had enough of it.
When I came back, I got an opportunity to travel to Jamaica, I always wanted to do the project but I never thought I would raise enough money to do it. That project really helped me to believe in myself, it taught me to stick to an idea and work independently – particularly because when you are away for an extended period of time photographing you cannot easily get feedback on the work you are making.
WL: What purpose does photography serve for you personally?
DM: I think my work is about where I grew up and the people around me. I think this has a lot to do with my work because I have been around disabled people and Jamaican people my whole life. Whatever is around you, the things that shape you, are what you are interested in, and overall I would say my work is about exploring my own identity through other people.
WL: Thinking about the work you made in Jamaica in 2019/20, the project titled Tower Avenue; what kind of function do you think it serves? How do you want people to view it?
DM: I think it gives people an insight into the sense of community in Jamaica. Often, when people think about Jamaica they think about the crime and it’s not all about crime. It’s about the community and the people that are just trying to live a normal life with whatever job they can get.
WL: And who are the people in the photographs?
DM: Some of them are my family; my grandma, my dad, and some of them are people I know from growing up in the area, I think If I never lived there the images would be very different, I wanted to show empathy to the people who saw me grow up but I didn’t want people to feel sorry for them.
WL: What do you think it says about the place, Tower Avenue?
DM: I don’t think Tower Avenue has a very good media representation because when you look it up online it’s all about how many people die in the community. Where I come from it’s a very dangerous place and I don’t know if you know this, but Ross Kemp came to Jamaica to interview people in my community. He visited Tower Avenue because one of my mum’s friends family members died and he came for the story, I can’t remember which year but I know the family really well.
WL: It sounds like it can be a very difficult place to live..
DM: It is, but it is my home and there is nowhere in the world where I feel more at home because everybody knows me. Every night there is a different party and there is nothing like that in the UK. It’s good when you can go back but I wouldn’t give up my home in the UK, I have gotten too used to the UK.
WL: Do you think that the hardship that you are talking about, the difficulty of life in Tower Avenue, comes across in the images?
DM: That is a hard one. In some way I think it does. You can tell there is some hardship on some people, look at the photograph of my grandma, when I look at that picture I think about what she’s been through, and she is still fighting to make our family work. To make sure everybody is looked after.
WL: Are there any artists which really inspired your work in Jamaica?
"… it is my home and there is nowhere in the world where I feel more at home because everybody knows me. Every night there is a different party and there is nothing like that in the UK."
DM: Imperial courts by Dana Lixenberg was a big influence, this book really made me wake up because I think Imperial Courts is similar to where I come from in Jamaica. My plan was always to go back to Jamaica to photograph disabled people but this book helped me to realise I could focus on my community in Jamaica more broadly. Her portraits are very natural and relaxed; the people don’t really need to do anything to make the photographs seem interesting, and this book is the only book I found of black people like this, she doesn’t look down on people, she shows them the same respect as you would anyone else. You don’t view them as victims which is so common with this kind of work.
WL: Yes, there is a lot of respect in the images, there’s a lot of dignity as well, people from those circumstances are so often represented as either victims or criminals.
DM: She is only representing black people and she is a white woman.
WL: What do you think about that? About her choosing to photograph these people as a white woman?
DM: I don’t think there’s any issue with it, some people would say she’s exploiting them to further her career but I don’t feel that. I think she was trying to show an honest representation of the African American community and when you think about LA you think about the movies and don’t think about the people that don’t have any money and who live in the projects. I think people would call her up on it if she was showing people a negative way, but she isn’t.
"I like having people in different states, sometimes they’re engaged, sometimes they are distracted. I think that sometimes the difference between them is more of a true representation of people in general."
WL: I think what is interesting about some of the work you made in Jamaica is the fact that some of the people look uncomfortable in some of the pictures, there’s the image of the guy crossing his arms and he’s got his shirt off, in those pictures, where people do look uncomfortable, is that more because of the circumstance of sitting there in the hot sun or …
DM: Yes, I remember that day, that day was very hot and he wanted to move and I would keep saying, ‘give me one more shot’. I like having people in different states, sometimes they’re engaged, sometimes they are distracted. I think that sometimes the difference between them is more of a true representation of people in general, I like the fact they’re not all shot the same and you’re not trying to compare people, a lot of the portraits are quite different.
WL: Amongst the portraits you have images of bars, why did you included those?
DM: The reason I included those is because many people living around Tower Avenue have a drinking problem, and everywhere you see a different bar. It’s a way to escape your situation and a place where you can talk to people about your problems, I think it makes you more honest, it allows you to know what people really think, it is like you are drinking a truth formula and you are able to tell people what you think about every day.
WL: In terms of portraiture more generally, when people talk and write about portraiture, they often speak about a power imbalance, as in the photographer has a disproportionate share of the power compared to the sitter. You are often photographing underrepresented groups, do you ever feel like there is a power imbalance? Do you feel like you are in control, or they are in control?
DM: A little bit, I know what I want and in terms of the composition of the image I always try to keep the background clear of objects, I tell them where I want them to stand but I am in no control of how I want them to pose. I try to make them feel more open and comfortable because I don’t really want them to pose, but it’s a compromise; I’m in control of some things but I’m also trying to let them have some freedom, so it is a kind of back and forth, like a collaboration.
"It’s a way to escape your situation and a place where you can talk to people about your problems, I think it makes you more honest, it allows you to know what people really think, it is like you are drinking a truth formula and you are able to tell people what you think about every day."
WL: As an artist that works almost exclusively with portraiture, what has lockdown taught you? Is there anything you have learnt from this period, or have you changed the way you work?
DM: Not that much really. I have been doing a project with Autograph ABP, the commission was to photograph carers in the community. I photographed them and talked to them about how covid 19 has affected them, this interview text will also be shown with the images.
WL: And what is the commission going to be eventually?
DM: It should be an exhibition in September at the Autograph gallery, I have finished making the images. It should be about six images by me and we are working with ten different artists who work with different mediums.