Dexter McLean explores the invisibility of marginalised communities through a new photographic series commissioned by Shape Arts. 

Check out the work   Read our Q&A with Dexter

We had the pleasure of working with Dexter McLean as part of our 2022 Shape Open exhibition In The Mirror, exploring the ways that cultural representations of disabled people often distort the truth, creating unhelpful and often discriminatory myths in the process. In the exhibition artists showed how throughout history disabled and marginalised people are often hidden away from view, cast unwillingly into the public gaze, or have their image treated in ways that are outside of their control. Dexter exhibited frank self portraits as part of that show, using the image of his naked self to confront these distortions and underminings of dignity through the wielding of his own lens.  

In our discussions with Dexter this commissioning opportunity arose which overlapped with Dexter's personal exploration of representation. Much of his work tells the visual story of black communities from a disabled perspective. This personal exploration eventually took Dexter back to his old school in London where, through the support of teachers and other staff who themselves experience marginalisation, he began his creative path that now finds him gaining profile and experience as a photographer. 

What resulted was a series of portraits taken as part of the routine school day, capturing a spare moment away from work that society typically under values, under funds, and discusses reluctantly. As Dexter put it, without these people it is unlikely he would have been able to go on to study at a higher level and make a reality of out his passion. On this occasion, he pays homage to the unrepresented, recognising them publicly in the process.

Unsung Heroes (2022) - Dexter McLean

Commissioned in 2022 by Shape Arts to mark Black History Month

This colour photograph is a portrait of Abdul, a black man in his early 30s, who stands before a plain wall with his head turned to face the camera. His expression is soft, hinting at a slight smile. His grey hoodie and short afro hair is caught slig


How long have you worked at The Village School?

Since 2013

What do you find satisfying about the job?

That all the buildings are safe for staff and kids.

What is the greatest challenge you face in your work?

When things are going wrong!

What would you change about it?


Debbie, a white woman in her 40s, with tied back blonde hair who faces the camera with an even smile that just shows her teeth. She wears a long sleeved black top that makes her stand out against the plain white backdrop, her portrait sitting central in the frame with her lower half and arms cropped. This portrait photograph is of Maxine. This is almost a full length portrait of a black woman in her 60s, with finely braided dark hair piled up in a neat bun, and who wears a dark purple winter coat and black and white spot-printed scarf with vibrant markings of pink. She has a calm, even expression and faces the camera from the right side of the image, her head turned slightly to the left. Her arms are at her sides; on the left side we find her hand buried deep in her pocket.
This headshot portrait of Suzie shows a black woman in her 60s facing the camera from the left with a relaxed, calm expression. Her hair is dark and tied up in braids on top of her head. Over a dark hooded coat or jacket she wears a purple and blue scarf with tassels, and small silver hoop earrings.


How long have you worked at The Village School?

22 years.

What do you find satisfying about the job?

I get a lot of joy out of seeing the children's developmental journey.

What is the greatest challenge you face in your work?

Adaptation. The hardest part of any job is the changes in technology and the increase in paperwork. I think it takes away from time with the children.

What would you change about it?

Less paperwork and more time with the kids.

' starting these conversations, practical changes with society are more likely to be made'

This portrait headshot of Sunnil shows a brown man in his 40s facing the camera from the right of the image with a broad smile that matches his jovial expression. He has greying dark hair with a fringe swept aside and a faint beard of greyish stubble. Hanging down before his dark shirt, whose top button is undone, are two staff lanyards, one pale blue and the other with superman logos across it. This colour portrait photograph of Emma, shows a white woman in her 40s with square rimmed glasses and dark wiry hair tied back behind her head. She looks slightly to the side of the camera and has a full smile with prominent teeth. Although the image is cropped and only her upper chest and head is visible, she gives the impression that she is tall and lean. She wears a red and black checked outfit with a collar, the top button undone.
Looking very slightly away from the camera, Martina is a white woman in her 40s with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail and wearing a knitted mauve top with a round neck. Although her lips form an even line, a slightly raised brow suggests a hint of humour or bemusement.


How long have you worked at The Village School?

18 years.

What do you find satisfying about the job?

I appreciate the huge opportunity and the challenge in changing the lives of young people with SEND. I hope that my input can increase the potential for their successful and happy future.

This headshot portrait photograph is of Farida, a brown woman in her 60s whose grey-white hair is tied back loosely so that part of it falls over her brow. She wears large dark-rimmed glasses and smiles in a composed way from the left of the image, facing the camera. She wears a tobacco brown knitted top with a round neck, over which hangs a dark staff lanyard.

Artist support at Shape

As part of our mission to support disabled creatives and change the cultural landscape for the better, we regularly commission new works either as part of our main Arts Council England-funded programme or as one-off projects. On our website you can explore our recent collaborations and commissions and find out more about the artists behind them. 

Read Dexter's artist profile   Explore our Black History Month commissions

Find Dexter on Facebook  Dexter's Instagram

Banner Image Description: Composite photograph of four of Dexters portraits. Individual descriptions can be found in the blog post.