The past two months have been a fast-cut montage of disbelief, fear, and the eventual acceptance of the fact that our lives have altered forever. Even as some parts of the world cautiously open up, the face of travel remains largely inscrutable. The days of hopping on a plane flying halfway around the world, of chasing mountains and cities that felt like daydreams, eating in a friendly stranger’s home—they all seem out of reach. It’s going to be just us for a while, with our phones and books, our awkward Zoom calls and kitchen experiments. And a constant anxiety for company.
London-based Jacqui Kenny is no stranger to the feeling of watching your world slowly shrink—it happened to her way before the coronavirus pandemic struck. A decade ago the New Zealand-born was diagnosed with agoraphobia, which in her words is “an extreme or irrational fear of entering open or crowded places, or of being in places from which escape is difficult.” It severely limited her ability to travel, but Jacqui found a different way to see the world—for her, the term ‘virtual travel’ is a deeply meaningful one. Four years ago, she began ‘travelling’ on Google Street View, and took thousands of screenshots of her journeys to Peru, Mongolia, Arizona, Kyrgyzstan and beyond. Today, her project brings 1,28,000 people to her Instagram page, Agoraphobic Traveller. Jacqui’s photographs have a pastel tint and a distinct starkness—an otherworld-ness—that makes them stand out from other oversaturated images floating around on the Internet.
“I started getting very bad panic attacks in my early 20s. At that time nobody was talking about them, or anxiety, so I didn’t know where to get help,” says Jacqui in an email interview. “I was afraid to go anywhere where an attack might happen, so I stopped getting on trains, buses, and planes, and started avoiding business meetings, supermarkets, and social events. The bigger the list got, the smaller my world became until it almost shrunk to nothing.”
Over time, Jacqui realised that her anxiety is part of who she is, and makes her see the world in a unique way. Street View enabled her to turn her limitation into something positive and creative, she feels. “Journeying the world through it, with ease and no anxiety, was a revelation. I began spotting similarities among places I travelled to, and it made me realise how connected we all are. It reminded me of how astronauts feel when they see Earth from space.”
The photographer has discovered lasting connections thanks to her virtual travels, collaborating with photographers, painters, writers, and poets. In 2017, she travelled to New York for her first solo exhibition. “I had people fly with me on the plane, which helped with my anxiety,” she remembers. She invited her Instagram community to the opening night and about 300 people turned up.
For Jacqui, the most important aspect of her project is that she gets to connect with people who live with anxiety and agoraphobia. “I’ve spoken to people from all over the world, from India to Venezuela, and it’s so nice to know we don’t have to be alone with it.”
Excerpts From the Interview:
How did you land up on Google Street View (to travel) in the first place?
In the beginning of 2016, a company I had co-founded had to close and I didn’t know what my future held. As my agoraphobia worsened, I became increasingly isolated and disconnected from the world. The only thing I could do at that time was look for an escape or some kind of creative outlet to help me get through it all.
The year before, I had randomly started searching through Google Street View—I went looking for a Brazilian street art tour on Google Maps and my curiosity took me further. It was so refreshing to be able to travel the streets of Rio de Janeiro without having to worry about flying, borders, or a panic attack. So back in I went, and completely immersed myself in this surreal world with no plans or itinerary, just for pure discovery and wonder. I parachuted from one country to another, discovering places I didn’t even know existed.
Where did you first travel, and what followed?
I started my travels in Brazil. I’ve never been there in the flesh, and I was in awe of the colours and the architecture. I could almost feel the energy of the country through my computer screen. I loved how people looked miniature because of the high camera angle; the scenes looked almost stage-like.
At first everything felt new and exciting—from a camel on the road to stray dogs chasing the Google car. You can jump anywhere and discover beauty in the most remote corners of the world, far removed from tourist attractions. I searched endlessly for moments of magic, frozen in time. Soon I realised there was an opportunity for me to curate the world in a style that made sense to me, in my own visual language. I wanted to create a world that felt familiar yet otherworldly. My friend Emily said, for her, “it’s as if they are postcards from places I’ve visited in a dream.”
Where did you go next? And when did your project become what it is today?
In the early days I really fell in love with Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. Mongolia, especially, couldn’t have felt more different from my life and flat in London—coloured architecture, gers (yurts), traditional mixed with modern, wild horses in the countryside, and the most extraordinary light. It is a land of vast emptiness. My initial searches through Mongolia started to shape my vision and aesthetic for my whole project. I also spent a lot of time in the towns and cities built in Arizona’s deserts. To me, they demonstrated the resilience of both humans and nature.
Once I knew what I was looking for, I started identifying patterns and it became easier to spot these moments—I’m always looking for the extraordinary in the everyday, as well as quiet, reflective moments. I realised that finding a certain light was really important, so I started searching around the equator.
The colours too were important for me; they represented hope. I wanted my images to have space to evoke a sense of isolation and loneliness, so I would leave the busy cities and venture out to the smaller towns. I was really drawn to the desert, because it both terrifies and fascinates me. As someone with agoraphobia, the desert is quite daunting with no easy escape or exit.
I realised that I was finding images that were a reflection of what I was going through. I started to see abstract and visual themes in my images of isolation, loneliness, hope, dreams, darkness, light, control, perfectionism and acceptance.
The coronavirus pandemic has upturned the idea of travel; most of us don’t know when we’ll next take a plane or a long-distance train. What role can imagination and creativity play for people now?
This is a really scary time. We all want to stay connected, and so many experiences have moved online, from virtual art galleries to online concerts. We are going to see so much more innovation with stay-at-home and local experiences. The world as we know is going to change. We are going to see a climate change and COVID-19 pincer movement—people will be questioning old ways of travelling and looking at new ways to move through the world.
Over the last few years I have learned to love and appreciate my local area. Staying close also took me on an internal journey which can be one of the most important journeys anyone can take. I’ve realised you don’t have to travel to faraway, exotic places to be happy or discover things about yourself. Irish Poet Patrick Kavanagh said that, “To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience.”
How do Street View portraits enrich your daily life?
I find so many special everyday moments on Street View. Like a picture of an elderly man walking his little dog, the lead tied to his Zimmer frame. I wondered how long they had been together for and how far did their daily walks take them? Moments like that make me love the world a little bit more. I loved seeing kids playing football in every country, whether in a field or on a quiet street; and people feeding or playing with stray dogs and cats. At one point I spent a lot of time searching around the beautiful city of Piura, Peru. When it was hit by a terrible flood a few years ago, my mind went straight to some of the people and places I had seen on my travels. The place had left a big impact on me.
I’ve also spoken to so many people from around the world who live in or have visited the places I put up on Instagram. It helps me get a fuller story of these areas and the culture. People’s suggestions often lead me on a completely different path—I’ve even had drivers share their discoveries with me.
And how do these connections differ from those on physical travels?
It’s very hard to compare physical travel with Street View travel. You don’t get to meet and enjoy the company of people (in the flesh anyway), experience the food, or join cultural activities. It’s a far more solitary way of seeing the world. You just have your eyes and your imagination!
What I love the most about Street View is that I have no set plans or itinerary and I can go where I want, when I want. It is never a precise way of travelling, so I am always jumping into new places with no prior knowledge. It always feels like an adventure into the unknown.
How has this pandemic impacted your life and work?
Fortunately it hasn’t had a massive impact on my routine and daily life. I usually work from home and as most of my family live in NZ or Spain, I’m used of communicating with loved ones through video and WhatsApp. The biggest change has been spending 24/7 with my partner and working out how to co-exist under these restrictions. I think we’re doing pretty well though.
I’ve been quite busy over the last two months. As my project is about travelling from home, there has been a renewed interest in my work as people look for ways to remain connected with the world. Hopefully I can offer some inspiration over this time.
You have an upcoming book. What’s it about?
Many Nights comes out late 2020 or in early 2021. I have paired up with the incredible poet Emily Berry, who has written a lyric essay responding to the images and themes around anxiety and agoraphobia. We have been working
on it for almost two years now and it’s a project I’ve poured my heart and soul into. It has been a time to reflect on my work and over 20 years of living with extreme anxiety. It is a voyage into the individual and collective unconscious, and I hope we have created a book that resonates and inspires others who might be going through similar struggles or anyone who wants to travel through the world in their own way. We are living in unprecedented times and I’m sure we will all want to revisit how we see the world and how we move through it.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.