Dexter McLean’s photographs of a suburban Jamaican community challenges misrepresentations of the country

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Tower Avenue focuses on the street that the photographer grew up on, and the surrounding area of Olympic Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica.

Dexter McLean was nine years old when his family moved from Kingston, Jamaica to London. Recalling his childhood, McLean explains that growing up in Kingston in the 90s as a disabled child with cerebral palsy was “exceptionally challenging”, with local schools having “little to no provisions” for their disabled students. 

After relocating to the UK, McLean was able to find a position at a specialist school that could better meet his needs. Still, making his way through the education system proposed various struggles. These challenges and hardships would later inform his practice in photography, which he studied at Middlesex University, where he graduated with an MA in 2020.

“My work focuses on representing the Black community [and] accurately depicting the challenges disabled people face in contemporary society,” McLean writes in his biography. Inspired to further explore these themes in his birthplace of Kingston, he travelled there in 2019 to begin his project Tower Avenue, focusing his attention on the street that he grew up on, and the surrounding area of Olympic Gardens. 

“I always try to go back to Jamaica every couple of years,” he says. “Jamaica is where I feel comfortable doing anything I want, I feel free there… [But] whenever I see Jamaica on the news it’s always about the crime rate, [so I wanted] to make it look real, to capture normal people living their normal lives.”

Jay Jay © Dexter McLean.
Miss Cherry © Dexter McLean.

An exhibition of images from Tower Avenue is due to open at Orleans House Gallery in London this Thursday, 17 March, marking McLean’s first solo show. Speaking on the opportunity, he says: “I feel amazing to be showing at Orleans House. I didn’t think I would make it this far so soon and I am so grateful for the people who have helped me get to this point. Orleans House has been so helpful and I’d especially like to thank the people at Middlesex University and Autograph ABP.”

In Tower Avenue, McLean’s intimate and sensitive portraits pay tribute to the diverse characters that make up his community in Olympic Gardens. He photographs them against the suburban backdrop of the local area, focusing his lens on the subtle flashes of personality that come through during the process.

The trust between photographer and subject is clearly visible in the latter’s calm and relaxed gestures. McLean says this dynamic is a crucial part of his practice. “Usually when I shoot people, I try to talk to them… to make them comfortable,” he explains. “In London they find it really hard to understand the way that I talk, but in my neighbourhood [Olympic Gardens], everyone understands me and what I am saying and doing, so I feel a little bit more comfortable there.”

Michael © Dexter McLean.

Interspersed among the portraits are several shots of local buildings that McLean says have sprung up in recent years, symbolising a changing city. These include various bars that have been established to cater to a “drinking culture” that has developed in the local area.

In his artist statement, McLean writes that he also observed “vast amounts of [new] street vendors” that have arrived as a result of “the lack of job opportunities in the country”. However, as with his approach to photographing disability, McLean strives to highlight the positives in an adverse situation, noting that these street vendors actually “contribute to a more solid community” and “promote togetherness”.

Tower Avenue by Dexter McLean is on show at Orleans House Gallery in London from 17 March until 12 June 2022. 

McLean hopes to continue his documentation of Kingston, and plans to return to photograph the city’s disabled communities. He is currently crowdfunding the project through Middlesex University. You can make a donation by visiting their website.

Daniel Milroy Maher

Daniel Milroy Maher is a London-based writer and editor specialising in photographic journalism. His work has been published by The New York Times, Magnum Photos, Paper Journal, GUP Magazine, and VICE, among others. He also co-founded SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication.