How does an agoraphobic travel the world? With a bit of ingenuity. From her London home, New Zealand expat Jacqui Kenny explores countries through Google Street View, an online platform which uses cameras mounted on various vehicles to capture photographs of locations worldwide, then “stitches” together the images to produce a 360-degree panorama.
When Kenny finds an image she likes – which can take many hours – she screenshots it (27,000 so far). A perfectionist, she’s posted only 200 or so images (“I only really like 10 of them”) on Instagram feed streetview.portraits as The Agoraphobic Traveller. At last count, she had over 141,000 followers.
In 2017 Kenny featured on the front page of National Geographic’s website “despite me not travelling or having a camera!” The same year Google also featured her work on its home page, and made a three-minute doco about her (1.5 million views on YouTube).
The images often depict the outskirts of cities, remote towns, and arid landscapes (camels in a United Arab Emirates desert, a mobile home in Kyrgyzstan) with the sky and/or foreground often prominent as negative space. “Oddly enough, given my agoraphobia, I’m drawn to open spaces. I like vivid architecture, bright light, and pastel colours, which suit Instagram.” With their stark aesthetic and otherworldly feel, her images convey both isolation and hope. People are peripheral, if there at all – Google’s privacy protocol means recognisable faces are blurred). “I do hardly any editing. I decided not to go down the Photoshop route at all. One day I might link to the actual locations [on Google Street View] and I don’t want them looking completely different.”
Kenny absolutely considers her work art. “It’s blurring the lines of what photography is, for sure. Some people think I’m just a curator, but it’s different from curation because, like a photographer, I’m considering different elements: the subject matter, good lighting, composition. Everyone would do this differently.” She had never made or studied art, but had worked in the film industry. “One of my main jobs was helping directors put together visual mood boards which entailed looking at lots of typography. That helped me figure out the style I like.”
Kenny, who smiles even while talking about painful things, has experienced severe anxiety for more than 20 years. “Back then, no one really talked about it.” Initially, she didn’t know what her panic attacks were. “I thought I was dying, and the doctor put it down to something I’d eaten.” Symptoms included a racing heart, shortness of breath, feeling faint, even feeling her feet had left the floor. “You start fearing having an attack. Then you stop going to places where you might have an attack.”
Thirteen years ago she moved from Auckland to London with her partner to run their digital-production company. And ten years ago, when the illness was affecting every aspect of her life, she was diagnosed with agoraphobia. Often mischaracterised as a fear of open spaces, it’s more a fear of being trapped in places where escape might be difficult, “or just away from your comfort zone. I reduced my world to places near my home.”
Then the business closed. “It was a not-so-great time. I wasn’t ready to go back out into the world but I wanted to do something creative.” She remembered an image of Brazil that she’d screenshot from Google Street View, and began exploring countries at random, then more methodically. “I just loved it. Sometimes I’d spend 18 hours on it a day.” Originally, she posted images on Instagram without mentioning agoraphobia, then she decided to become “The Agoraphobic Traveller” to raise awareness of agoraphobia and mental illness. “The whole project has helped me. It’s not just about opening up, but also about being creative and keeping away negative thoughts.”
These days Kenny only spends a few hours a week on Google Street View. “I’m in the best place I’ve been in ages. Now that I talk about it [agoraphobia], it doesn’t seem to have as much power over me. I’ve got so much support through this project – and now know people wouldn’t react badly if I had a panic attack. I’ve also fallen in love with the world. Everywhere I go [through Street View] there are differences but similarities. I feel really connected, no matter where I go.”