Grounded no longer

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

What began as a way to open up her world has turned agoraphobic Jacqui Kenny into an artist who’s begun exhibiting internationally. She talks to Sarah Lang.


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.


Jacqui Kenny, photograph by Diana Simumpande

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 246 images (‘I only really like 10 of them’) on Instagram feed streetview.portraits as The Agoraphobic Traveller. At last count, she had nearly 93,000 followers. ‘It’s been quite a year. It’s only now I can step back and go “Whoa, what just happened?”'


A lot. For starters, she featured on the front page of National Geographic’s website ‘despite me not travelling or having a camera!’ Google also featured her work on its home page, and made a three-minute doco about her (586,000 views on YouTube). How does she feel about Google owning her images? ‘At the moment I'm fine with the Google copyright because it’s been really interesting collaborating with them. I'm not sure what will happen in the future though.’ (Her partner is executive creative director at Google ZOO, an advertising arm of Google.)


Google also sponsored her first exhibition, which on opening night in New York hosted 300 Instagram followers and reporters from the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times newspaper. ‘That exhibition was the stuff of my wildest dreams.’ Instead of looking at prints on the walls, people peered down at lit-up images placed in a line along a narrow, eight-metre-long steel installation that bisected the room. Visitors also donned virtual-reality headsets to look around the areas surrounding her images, while listening to her voiceover.


Image credits: Jacqui Kenny


From camels in a United Arab Emirates desert to a mobile home in Kyrgyzstan, the images often depict the outskirts of cities, remote towns and arid landscapes, 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, 43, 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.’


With Google’s permission, all proceeds from limited-edition prints – on sale for £10 at theagoraphobictraveller.com – go to the Brain & Behaviour Research Foundation, a global non-profit focused on improving the understanding, prevention and treatment of mental illnesses. They’ve raised around US$10,000 so far.


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.’


Eleven years ago, she moved from Auckland to London with her partner to run their digital-production company. Eight 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.’


Two years ago, 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 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.’


The project is ‘easily a fulltime job’ but she’s been living on savings and will need to start some paying work soon. She stopped taking screenshots in mid 2017, but is still posting occasionally from her archives – and the project won’t end there. ‘There are lots of different ways I could take this now – it’s just "which one?" Virtual reality? Artificial intelligence? Could I teach a machine to understand my aesthetic, go to Google Street View and select images from the billions out there? That might be quite fun.


‘Also, I imagine the screenshots as vignettes in movie scenes, so I’d like to actually travel to some of these places, and film and photograph them. I’d love to see other artists paint or screenprint the images, too. I may do a collective exhibition in London with other artists and creatives who have contacted me to share they have anxiety disorders.’ She answers several messages every day.


This summer she spent two months with family in Auckland. ‘My biggest fear is flying as the further I am away from my comfort zone, the worse it [agoraphobia] gets. I used to have months of therapy to even contemplate flying, then try to get out of it at the last minute.’ On the plane, she has to try to control intrusive thoughts. Unfortunately, on the flight from London to Auckland, she was seated in the emergency-exit row directly beside the door. ‘I should have said something at the time, because my biggest fear when flying is the thought that I’m going to try to open the plane door. Of course, I'd never actually try to open it.’ (And it wouldn’t open anyway.) Happily, given further exhibitions look likely in San Francisco, Barcelona and Berlin, flying is getting a little easier.


‘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.’


First published Art Zone #73

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