To describe a photographer as working between portraiture and documentary is to comment on both intention and style. It is also a subjective statement, the norms and canon of photographic history being constantly interrupted by new innovations in both categories. Sometimes, as with Dexter McLean’s image Patsy family and friends, this in-betweenness is captured in a single photograph, a visual manifesto whose subjects’ poses and moods chart the artist’s path through the two traditions.
This photograph is part of Tower Avenue, a project that the Jamaica-born artist begun in 2019. The series documents the close-knit intergenerational communities of Olympic Gardens, Kingston, where the artist spent the first nine years of his life before relocating to the UK.
Born with cerebral palsy, McLean’s early years were defined by inadequate support to manage his condition, with no crutches or wheelchairs available to him. In England, it was two years before he was accorded a place in an appropriate school. Being gifted a small digital camera aged 13 sparked a journey which led to undergraduate and masters photography degrees at Middlesex University, London, and his self-published Tower Avenue monograph being shortlisted for the MACK First Book Award 2021.
“I strongly believe there are some fundamental flaws in the way mainstream media corporations represent the disabled community”
In Patsy family and friends, some subjects are primed and posed like experienced sitters, while others remain happily unconcerned by the direction required for a portrait shoot. The magnetic stares of the four children in the foreground and praying pose of an older boy behind recall the black and white street photography of Dawoud Bey, whose deft eye for clothing, hand gesture and props is echoed in McLean’s individual portraits. That his subjects’ attention is divided illustrates McLean’s dual intention: to document the boundless energy of his community while also creating individual narratives and aesthetic cohesion.
Dexter’s long-term aim is to create a series documenting the disabled community in Jamaica, drawing on his own experiences. For now, his stature in the UK is growing, having worked with Autograph and Disability Arts Online, and being awarded the Hood Medal by the Royal Photographic Society. “I strongly believe there are some fundamental flaws in the way mainstream media corporations represent the disabled community,” McLean says. In his work, documentary and portraiture are wielded in service of a higher aim.
Ravi Ghosh is Elephant’s editorial assistant
Tower Avenue is at Orleans House Gallery until 12 June