This Agoraphobic Photographer Uses Google Street View to Travel the World
It’s Monday night in England, and already today photographer Jacqui Kenny visited Tunisia, wandered through the sandy streets of Senegal, and went for a quick jaunt in Belgium—all without leaving her house.
Kenny lives with agoraphobia, an anxiety condition that causes individuals to avoid venturing into crowded or remote places, for fear of having a panic attack and being unable to escape or find help. For some, at its worst, this can mean a fear of leaving home. To counter this, Kenny roams the globe via Google Street View, and virtually combs streets and landscapes to snap screenshots for her photography series “Agoraphobic Traveller.”
In some 26,000 screenshots and counting, she’s caught unsuspecting subjects—from a young couple kissing on a curb in Chile to three camels crossing an empty highway in United Arab Emirates—through her unlikely lens.
The project kicked off a year ago, Kenny tells me, during a period of creative reprieve after the digital production company she’d helmed for 10 years closed its doors. Prior to that, Kenny worked in the film industry, assembling visual treatments for directors and unconsciously training her eye by scouring hundreds of thousands of images. But unlike a career break that sees employees swap their nine-to-fives for backpacking across the world (à la Eat, Pray, Love), Kenny’s time off would see her staying safely put.
“Travel’s really difficult for me,” Kenny tells me, “which is really unfortunate because I’ve always dreamed of going to these really amazing, faraway places.” In her newfound downtime, she began perusing Google Maps and screen grabbing particular subtleties of the varying landscapes. “I’ve got a really big love for photography, I always have,” she says. “It was kind of getting as close as I could to being a travel photographer.”
Indeed, curbed by the fear of experiencing a panic attack in a public place, Kenny avoids airplanes and, generally, destinations outside of her comfort zones. “My main fear is flying,” she says. However, “if I’m having a bad day I won’t walk to the back of the supermarket.” Thanks to Google, Kenny is poised to circle the globe just as fast as Google’s iconic camera cars can document it.
To begin, Kenny drops herself into regions where key aesthetic characteristics, like strong sunlight and a striking color palette, converge. “I literally just start going down the streets,” she says of her process; it can take days to land on a single composition. In Senegal, like most places she ventures, Kenny spends her time in small towns and areas outside of urban centers, free from cars and clutter. “I like lots of negative space and isolated-feeling images.”
She also seeks out countries with extreme temperatures, especially warm climes, she says, “where you tend to get beautiful colors in clothes and architecture, and everything feels a bit more vibrant.” Close to her heart, too, are dusty, desert towns, where “the dust gives the image a really ethereal look; it adds a bit of magic.” (The Google car kicks up dust, she says, which adds to the magic, as in a photo she snapped of a mother and child holding hands in a cloud of dust during sunrise in Mongolia.)
Kenny’s rather specific eye is precisely why, as she says, “you can’t often tell where the pictures are from—it could be on one side of the planet or the other.” A candy-colored Arizona abode, for instance, finds uncanny resonance with a blue-and-pink, barbed wire-encased building in the desert of Peru. “I’m trying to give the world one style,” she says. “Obviously [these places] are all different.”
In doing so, she imbues the world with a pastel-hued, transcendental allure that recalls both the poetry of Luigi Ghirri’s dreamy Italian landscapes and the romantic, open spaces by photographers of the American West—but with an intention, and a technique, that’s very much her own.
And as Google’s cars continue mapping the seven continents, Kenny’s source material widens by the day. “Every now and then a new country or a new area will pop up,” she says. She’s kept a close eye on Africa, where many countries have not yet been mapped. Recently, Tunisia was added—and she’s submerged herself there since. “It really makes me want to go there,” she says.
The closeness Kenny feels with the farthest reaches of the world, and those farthest from the confines and comforts of her London home, is an unlikely outcome of an online-only pursuit. But it’s one of the most significant. Among these places is Piura, Peru, where Kenny has spent countless days winding the streets and wielding her camera of sorts, catching sights like a group of children lingering outside a soccer field.
In March, when Peru was hit with its worst floods in two decades, Kenny took the tragedy to heart. “This area that I’ve spent a lot of time in has been hit the worst,” she says. “I’ve got the images in my head of these kids that I’ve screen-capped and now I really think about them. Street View was there quite recently, so they are quite recent images.”
“It’s brought me closer to the world in a lot of ways,” says Kenny. But particularly in ways she’d never imagined.
In the beginning, Kenny says, “I was worried that if I started doing this a lot—staying at home, screen-grabbing—is that really helpful for my agoraphobia?” The answer, she says, is a resounding yes. Prior to this project, Kenny hadn’t told anyone outside of close friends and family about her agoraphobia. But today, she’s connected to a supportive global community, including many individuals who experience similar struggles. “The moment you start talking to people about it, the moment you say it out loud, it suddenly doesn’t have so much weight anymore,” she says.
And in a wonderful twist of fate, and perhaps her next challenge, Kenny is now being asked to exhibit her work in other countries. “It gives me a reason to do it,” she says. “I’m going into situations where people know I have agoraphobia. I always fear that I’m going to have a panic attack in front of strangers; if they already know that I have this I’m not so concerned,” she says. “It’s liberating.”