Jacqui Kenny is a human paradox: a travel photographer with a fear of travel.
The London-based Kiwi has struggled with severe anxiety for more than 20 years and, eight years ago, was diagnosed with agoraphobia which, for her, means a fear of places and situations that make her feel trapped and therefore helpless.
Planes, not surprisingly, are among her least favourite things, but even a trip to the supermarket can be enough to induce a panic attack.
“I was in my early twenties when I started to suffer from panic attacks and no one really talked bout them then. Even the doctors, who thought my diet was to blame. Every time I had one, I thought I was dying. I had them is all sorts of places. Even the local supermarket was tricky because the end of the aisle was too far from the exit and I needed to be close to the exit so I knew I could get home easily. My world kind of closed in.”
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When her condition lead to the closure of her decade-old production and marketing company The Rumpus Room two years ago, Kenny decided to immerse herself in a creative project which wouldn’t require her to face her fears on a daily basis or deal with other people.
She didn’t have a specific project in mind when she began exploring the world on Google Street View, but the aesthetic of certain images appealed, so she began taking screenshots of them and saving them for a rainy day. And of course it rains rather a lot in London, where she has been living for 11 years.
She soon found herself roaming the backstreets of rural towns in countries such as Chile, Mongolia and Senegal on an endless pursuit for the perfect shot.
She was particularly drawn to stark, arid scenes offset by a splash of bright colour or a repeated shape or movement. A lady in red walking along a dusty Mongolian highway; a trio of boys in bright t-shirts chasing a Street View car in Chile’s Atacama region – the driest non-polar desert in the world.
Before long, Kenny’s world expanded to include parts of the US, Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa and beyond. Often working seven days a week and into the wee hours, it had become an obsession.
While she doesn’t consider her work a substitute for real-world travel, it does enable her to see places she has always longed to visit but would find it incredibly hard, if not impossible, to. She likens it to exploring a parallel universe of “moments frozen in time”.
Kenny has now amassed more than 27,000 photos, some of which she she has uploaded to Instagram under the name streetview portraits. Initially reluctant to disclose the phobia that lay behind the project publicly, she eventually dubbed herself the Agoraphobic Traveller and amended her bio to say Street View photography had helped her deal with the constraints of her phobia and anxiety.
“I think it’s important to be open about it. Yes, it’s tough but beautiful things can come from it.”
Aside from the photos themselves, those beautiful things include attracting the attention of Google, which sponsored a recent exhibition of her work in New York, and connecting with others struggling with agoraphobia, anxiety and other mental health issues.
The exhibition, of course, was a mixed blessing: to get there she would have to take an eight-hour flight.
Kenny says preparation for essential travel often begins months in advance. She practices mindfulness techniques to calm herself and visualises each step of her journey, from arriving at the boarding gate and walking down the aisle to hearing the engines start up and taking off. Imagining the process somehow makes it less surreal and therefore easier to handle.
Kenny made it safely to New York and the exhibition was a hit, attracting hundreds on opening night, including many from her now nearly 88,000-strong Instagram community. One of the best things to come out of it, she says, are the messages of support she now receives from around the world on an almost daily basis.
“People have been so kind, offering strategies for getting through. I’ve been thinking how wonderful it would be if everyone could get that kind of support. Having that encouragement and acknowledgement that what you’re going through is real is so important.”
Google, which holds the copyright to Street View images, has given her permission to sell prints of some of her shots via her website. The proceeds go to the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation, a nonprofit organisation that focuses on mental health research.
Kenny hopes to be able to visit the sites of her images one day, saying that when she’s exploring new territory on Street View her sole focus is on finding the perfect composition. The non-visual aspects of travel – the smells and sounds and tastes and conversations – are lost.
Still, some places have managed to etch a place in her heart.
“There was a town in North Peru that I spent quite a bit of time in because it was a beautiful place, and then I found out that they had had a severe flood… People had to be airlifted out. I was really heartbroken. I went back to the images of the kids playing football in the streets and thought about the actual people who live there.”
The experience highlighted the half-reality of her work: she is seeing real places and capturing them but is never able to go beyond the superficial; to discover the true essence of a place and make connections with the people who live there.
Kenny says she has “tried everything” to cure her anxiety and agoraphobia and, while she hasn’t found a cure, she has multiple strategies for managing it.
Her next big challenge will be flying home to Auckland for Christmas.
“There are good times and bad times but it’s about pushing through and getting on that plane, which is a huge deal for me. But these days I try to say yes to everything and figure out a way to get through.”