This photographer captures otherworldly destinations via Google Street View
Agoraphobic artist Jacqui Kennedy virtually travels the world from the comfort of her home. Here she offers some advice for anyone homebound and in desperate need of escapism.
Left USA, right Tunisia
A large portion of the countries affected by COVID-19 have been in lockdown for about two months now. Needless to say, it's been challenging: the economy is plunging, freelancers are struggling, festival season’s cancelled, boredom is soaring, relationships are under pressure, the list goes on. On top of that, it seems like there won’t be much travelling happening any time soon either. Thousands of flights are grounded, while tourists in many countries will have to self-isolate for two weeks after landing in a new location. Not a particularly inviting prospect. And while skipping a year of travel isn't the end of the world (although it literally does feel like it's the end of the world out there), it does mean we're in need of a little escapism.
London artist Jacqui Kenny knows escapism. She's been travelling to the far corners of the world without ever leaving the comfort of her sofa since way before lockdown. For over ten years now Jacqui has suffered from agoraphobia, a condition commonly understood as a fear of entering open and crowded places. For Jacqui it means she is afraid of losing control -- to get an anxiety attack while being surrounded by people and not being able to get home. On bad days, her anxiety hinders her from leaving the house completely. Travelling, particularly using trains or flying, is extremely challenging: the idea of being locked in a confined space without the possibility to exit is simply unbearable.
In 2016 Jacqui began exploring the world on Google Street View instead. Intrigued by the camera's unique perspective -- allowing the viewer to have this distorted 360 vision -- and amazed by its endless possibilities, she started to visit places that interested her the most. "From a camel on the road in the United Arab Emirates to a dog chasing the car in Peru, I was in awe of this new way of seeing the world," she says. After she got over her initial enthusiasm, she realised she could use the platform creatively and curate the world in her own style, her own visual language. "Because I had been feeling so out of control in my own life, I felt I had more control in Street View," she explains. "I just loved parachuting from one country to another without having to worry about panic attacks, flying or borders. I felt weightless and anxiety-free and for the first time in a long time I felt like I was finding my voice." Not long after, she began to post her findings on her Instagram account @streetview.portraits, quickly amassing thousands of followers.
Capturing images that feel familiar but otherworldly at the same time is important to Jacqui, she explains, and a lot of that has to do with a certain type of light she finds around the equator. "I wanted my images to evoke a sense of isolation and loneliness, so I left the big cities and searched the smaller towns." This is where she discovered the artist's love for the desert, which she says both terrifies and fascinates her at the same time. "As someone with agoraphobia, the desert is quite daunting with no easy escape or exit. It started to become obvious to me that I was attracted to places and moments that also reflected my personal situation, and I started to see abstract and visual metaphors in my images such as isolation, loneliness, hope, dreams, darkness, light, control, perfectionism and acceptance."
While she's virtually visited the far corners of the world -- from Chile to Senegal to Kyrgyzstan -- it’s Mongolia that has left the deepest imprint on Jacqui. "When I first discovered its beauty, it was just overwhelming," she says. "The place couldn’t have felt more different from my life and flat in London. I really thought I had entered the most magical of worlds. From the most vibrant coloured architecture to the gers, the tradition mixed with modernity, the dramatic landscapes, wild roaming horses in the countryside and the most extraordinary light." Mongolia has helped the Londoner shape her vision and aesthetic and she now cites it as one of the first places she would actually like to physically visit.
But that’s unlikely to be any time soon -- at least, not so long as the almost worldwide lockdown continues. It’s been odd for Jacqui to see people deal with the kind of restrictions that she's been under for a full decade due to her agoraphobia. "While of course it’s different,” she says, “I can empathise with the frustration of not being able to travel far from home, and the feeling of being disconnected from the world. It can be incredibly hard and lonely. I know from my own experience that it can be a slippery slope if you’re feeling isolated and you just keep it all to yourself."
As has become clear from her own experience, travelling virtually can be a welcome distraction. "It's obviously a completely different sensory experience to physical travel and a far more solitary way of seeing the world, but what I loved the most about Street View is that I had no set plans or itinerary and I could go where I wanted, when I wanted," Jacqui says. "It was never a precise way of travelling and so I was always jumping into new places with no prior knowledge -- it felt like an adventure into the unknown."
Using Street View to shoot has given Jacqui a zoomed-out look at the world, she says: "It was so easy to spot similarities from one place to the next and it made me realise just how connected we really are. It reminded me of how astronauts feel when they see earth from space. They get a shift of awareness; a sense of the bigger picture."
She concludes that it will be interesting to see what remains and evolves after our restrictions are lifted, and what lasting impact these new explorations could have on image-making. "When artists started using Street View in the early days of the platform, most people didn’t consider it photography and it caused a lot of passionate debate," she says. "I don’t see that so much now, as I think the obsession with the historical definition of photography seems less important these days. Using a camera is only one of a growing number of ways to create pictures of the world."
Jacqui Kenny 's book 'Many Nights' is due late 2020 and features a corresponding essay by poet Emily Berry.
All images captured by Jacqui Kenny