Dexter McLean’s profound images bring forth perspectives and stories that tend to be underrepresented in much of the photography and media landscape. His Aspire Gym photo series features portraits of athletes in a wheelchair rugby team, who visit the gym to both train and socialise.
“I was trying to give a perspective society hadn’t seen before. A few disabled athletes may be famous now but the Paralympics only comes around every few years. The average disabled person in training is completely unseen,” McLean tells CR. “I am opening new doors to what the media normally shows through my circumstances as a disabled Jamaican living in London.”
When he was a few months old, McLean was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and had a challenging time growing up in the early 1990s in Jamaica. His primary school wasn’t equipped to accommodate disabled students, and he recalls how he often had to walk on his hands and knees as there were no wheelchairs or crutches for him.
McLean’s family moved from Jamaica to the UK when he was nine, and it took another two years before he was accepted into a specialist school for disabled students. The daily challenges he has faced have informed his creative practice today, especially in his documentation of people with disabilities, which seeks to bring a level of nuance to the subject that’s lacking in the bulk of mainstream media.
A few years after moving to the UK, McLean was introduced to the world of photography. “When I was 13 years old my aunty bought me my first camera. I was obsessed with it, with the different angles and framing,” he recalls. “Then I did my GCSE in photography, the only student at my disabled school to do so.”
While researching the work of photographers during his BTEC, McLean noticed there was a lack of images of disabled people in the canon. “The only person I found was Diane Arbus,” he says. “I realised there was a niche for representing people with disabilities, and changing the perception of the disabled is very important to me given I suffer from cerebral palsy.”
McLean recently gained his Photography MA from Middlesex University. While a lot of his work is studio-based, the course pushed him to take photographs outside on location. “It really helped with my skills shooting outside, working with a flash gun and working with subjects to get the images I wanted,” he says. “It helped me realise I don’t need to be afraid, I can do what I want.”
Another of his projects saw him photograph the people and places of Olympic Gardens, a small town where he and his family used to live on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica. Located near the seaport, the suburb is home to friends and family, some of whom he photographed for the series. The project features uncomplicated yet striking portraits, which drew inspiration from Dutch photographer Dana Lixenberg. “Her project Imperial Courts was like a bible to me,” he says. “It pushed me to do this project because the concept is inspired by a similar situation as to where I come from in Jamaica. There is little work, and people are trying to live their life without many opportunities. I wanted to show that reality.”
McLean says work can be a challenge when people don’t understand the way he talks and projects can take longer. However, living with a disability “doesn’t give me any limitations on what I can do,” he says. “When you see my photographs you don’t see a disability, or the stigma associated with disability, you see a photographer who is trying to make it in the art world.”
“I find that I can bring a different perspective,” he says. However, he doesn’t believe it’s essential for a photographer to have parallel experiences to their subjects – “as long as they capture an idea. I always shoot projects that are important to me. Because of the limitations I have with my disability, completing projects takes a long time. I only dedicate my time to things I am really passionate about. I don’t know what the future will hold for me but I will always try to work on projects I am truly passionate about.”
His ambition is to bring together the themes addressed in his existing work for a future project: “I want to keep shooting communities that are important to me for now. My hope for my next project is to return to Jamaica and capture portraits of Jamaicans living with disabilities, and disabled communities there. That has been my dream project for the last year. That’s a side of the world that is never shown. I want to build on the unique perspective I have … I want to work towards changing the perception of the disabled in the media.”