Artist Dexter McLean speaks with Autograph's director Mark Sealy about identity, community and representations of disabled people in the twenty-first century.
Dexter McLean is one of the ten artists creating new work for our commissioning project Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other. McLean used the commission to explore the impact of Covid-19 on those nearest to him. The resulting series of photographs capture his immediate community of close friends and family wearing face masks, playing with ideas around exposure and protection.
Autograph's Director Mark Sealy has worked closely with McLean throughout the commissioning process, continuing their ongoing mentoring dialogue over several years. Here they reflect on representations of the disabled community, visibility and the power of photography as a tool for social change.
Mark Sealy (MS): Dexter, we have been speaking to each other for some time now, and I’ve watched your practice develop over the years. You recently graduated with distinction from university. Can you talk about the experience of making these new portraits, and what this artist commission means to you at this time?
Dexter McLean (DML): The commission from Autograph was incredibly timely. Having just completed my Master’s degree and with the onset of the pandemic, it allowed me to focus on the people that are very important to me. I wanted to pay tribute to them because society often forgets just how valuable these relationships are, especially in difficult times like these. Hence, I photographed my mother, who is my full-time carer, and some of my closest friends and family. I feel that a photograph can portray so much about someone: it is like getting a small glimpse into their soul. This is why I like to focus on people – to create that moment of contact, and exchange.
MS: Where do these portraits sit in your wider practice?
DML: My practice operates in a space between documentary and portraiture. At its core are politics of representation. I like to see myself as a disabled person in the twenty-first century, and my favourite subjects are disabled and Black people: the two main aspects that make up my own identity. I started creating work about identity at college, and I have also explored self-portraiture, fashion and nature. Through my photography, I hope to accurately represent the disabled community, and convey how they – how we – are capable of achieving success despite the odds often being stacked against us. I believe there are some fundamental flaws in the way mainstream media depicts the disabled community: our relationships, our daily lives and our abilities are not portrayed in the right light. And the media rarely represent people like myself or my friends; they do not pay enough attention to those born disabled and tend to focus on those who became disabled after an accident or being injured in a war zone, for example.
MS: When did photography become this important tool for you to document your life, and the lives of your friends, family and those who form part of your wider community? When did the camera become an integral part of your life?
DML: I became interested in photography when I was 13 years old. My aunt bought me my first camera; I was obsessed with it and did not want to put it down. I was the only person at my secondary school to do a GCSE in photography. I knew then it was the only thing I wanted to do in my life. My family moved to the UK when I was only nine years old. I spent my early childhood in Jamaica where, a few months after I was born, I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Growing up as a disabled child in Jamaica was very challenging in the early 1990s: there were little to no special provisions to accommodate disabled students at school, and I often had to walk on my hands and knees because there were no wheelchairs or crutches. Here in the UK, I went to a specialist school designed for students with physical disabilities and complex needs – I had never seen so many disabled people together, with so many different disabilities. It was an incredible atmosphere where disabled people were encouraged and supported by others and each other. That is what inspired me to do what I do today; coming to the UK changed my life completely.
Photography changed me and opened my mind to new things, and new ways of working together, new possibilities. I am the first/only one in my family to go to university. I wanted to push myself to my limits … I do not give up very easily. I always fight for what I want to do, and I never give up on my dreams. If someone tells me I cannot do something, I will find a way to get around them. I do not, and never have, let my disability – or anyone else – hold me back. I believe that disabled people need to be treated in the same way as able-bodied people, but they are currently not: I want to change that through photography.
"I want their images to tell their own stories, dreams and desires"
MS: So, for you this is very much about photography and parity. As you know, at Autograph we also speak a lot about rights: the right to representation, the right to visibility; and about the camera as a tool for raising awareness and advocating for change, for countering stereotypical, missing or inaccurate representations.
DML: Yes, to create change, to challenge such media misrepresentations, and to address the lack of diverse imagery is what I hope to achieve with my work; and to inspire young – especially disabled, and Black – people to also follow their dreams, to believe in themselves, regardless of their background or ability, through my photography. My aim is to depict accurately the challenges we face in contemporary society, and to use photography as a tool to document the struggles that I myself have experienced, both as a child in Jamaica and here in London too.
I want to make a book on disabled people: I want to change the way those who were born disabled are represented in the media. I want to change the public perception of disability here in the UK and the world at large. One of my long-term goals is to travel and take photographs of as many disabled people as possible: to document where they live, how they go about their daily lives, and to show how disability is viewed differently across the world. In particular, I would love to travel throughout Jamaica to find disabled people to photograph: to voice – and visualise – the struggles, and the strengths, of disabled people in Jamaica through photography. I want their images to tell their own stories, dreams and desires. This has not been done before. I am a big fan of Diane Arbus’s work: she took photographs of people marginalised by society, who are not conventionally regarded as fitting into society, and she saw them the way I see them. She started something and I want to finish it.
See the full artist commission by Dexter McLean
Read artist and educator Dave Lewis' response to McLean's new work
Renée Mussai introduces the new artist commissions in a curatorial essay One (Pandemic) Year On...
Read the introduction to the Care | Contagion | Community project
The Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other exhibitions are now in development
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Image captions: Works from Dexter McLean's commission Untitled, 2020. Archival giclée prints, each 12 x 16 inches. © and courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Autograph for Care | Contagion | Community — Self & Other: 1) Kymarley [detail], 2020. 2) Michelle, 2020. 3) Kamahl, 2020. 4) Keenan, 2020.
Other page images: 5-7) Dexter McLean, from Aspire Gym. © and courtesy the artist.