Dexter McLean’s compelling series documents the people of his Jamaican birth town, Olympic Gardens

The London-based photographer talks us through his naturalistic style and how photography has helped him overcome reductive preconceptions of his disability.

14 April 2022


For his photo series Tower Avenue, Dexter McClean returned to Olympics Gardens, a Western suburb in Jamaica and the town in which he was born. At the age of nine, he and his family moved from Olympics Gardens to London; the project is therefore one of powerful return. Focussing primarily on friends and family members, the series has proven to be both a way for Dexter to interact with and explore his personal history, and to more broadly investigate modern Jamaican culture and the changes that have occurred since his departure.

“I wanted to show people in Jamaica living their daily lifestyle,” Dexter explains. To ensure and maintain this very people-focused approach, he pursued a very “natural” aesthetic. “I tried to keep the background very clear in the images, as I wanted to focus on the people, not the background,” he explains. This approach is one that has served the series extremely well. The images are unified in their composition, lighting and style, distinguished by the individuality and essence of each subject – some staring directly down the lens, others into the distance and seemingly caught in deep thought. A stand out image from the project, for both Dexter and us here at It’s Nice That, is one of Miss Cherry, his grandmother. The images holds a certain pertinence, not only for its compelling visuals – Miss Cherry stares meditatively out of the frame, holding the viewers gaze – but also because it's the first photo he ever took of her. Moreover, Dexter tells us that it's an image that has received the most positive attention – “there are so many people who love that picture,” he recollects.

GalleryDexter McLean: Tower Avenue (Copyright © Dexter McLean, 2020)

Upon returning to start work on Tower Avenue, Dexter recalls being taken aback by the growth of drinking culture. Many of his photographs are therefore taken in Angela’s Bar, one of the most popular new establishments. The work is rooted in the “lack of job opportunities in the country”, and also the vast amount of street vendors, which, although stemming from wider societal problems, Dexter also acknowledges “contributes to a more solid community, promoting togetherness”. This sense of togetherness also extends into family life, where Dexter views a greater respect of the elderly, “the people of Olympics Gardens believe in taking care of their elderly and are against placing old family members in care homes,” he tells us, “they believe it’s the family's duty to care for and look after the older members of the community”.

Dexter’s love of photography began at the age of 13, when his aunty bought him his first camera and he became instantly “obsessed”. Taking photography at GCSE and completing Tower Avenue as his final MA project at Middlesex university, photography has played a central role in his life. Moreover, photography has also proven a means for Dexter to navigate his experience as a disabled individual living with cerebral palsy. To overcome negative or reductive preconceptions, he says, “I think when you look at my pictures you can't tell I have a disability, which has helped to keen peoples focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do”.

The Tower Avenue project has helped Dexter to connect with other disabled creatives, namely Giles Duley, a fellow portrait and documentary photographer. “Giles is a constant source of inspiration for me,” Dexter says, “he is a disabled photographer who is in Ukraine right now, documenting disabled people’s lives through the war. I am so happy he agreed to be part of my current show.” Dexter is now currently in the process of crowdfunding for his next upcoming project, in which he plans to return to Jamaica and document people living with disabilities. “The disabled get no support in Jamaica, and I want to bring this to the media’s attention with my work,” the photographer concludes. An exhibition of the Tower Avenue series is currently showing at Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham, and will be running until the 12th June.

GalleryDexter McLean: Tower Avenue (Copyright © Dexter McLean, 2020)

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Dexter McLean: Tower Avenue (Copyright © Dexter McLean, 2020)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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