Tips for virtual travel from the ‘Agoraphobic Traveller’

CNN  — 

While the coronavirus crisis has restricted most global travel, a typical day sees Jacqui Kenny spend the morning in Arizonian desert, lunch in Kyrgyzstan and the evening wandering streets in Mongolia.

So how does Kenny do it? Well, she’s had some practice.

New Zealand-born, London-based Kenny runs a popular Instagram account @streetview.portraits – under the pseudonym “The Agoraphobic Traveller” – chronicling her experiences virtually voyaging the world from her own home.

Kenny suffers from agoraphobia – an anxiety condition that makes venturing outside, let alone traveling across continents, very difficult.

Back in 2016, stuck in a rut and feeling disconnected from her creative spark, Kenny started combing through Google Street View, looking for interesting images that sparked her imagination and chimed with her aesthetic leanings.

“I thought it was a little bit magic, Google Street View, it feels like a parallel universe, frozen in time,” Kenny told CNN Travel back in 2017.

Three years on, and Kenny’s project has grown beyond what she ever imagined – and provides the perfect lens for examining our collective situation.

CNN Travel caught up with Kenny to get her advice on appreciating the world from your living room, and coping in these anxiety-inducing times.

Inside a parallel world

Jacqui Kenny took this screenshot of dogs in Copiapo, Atacama Region, Chile.

“When I felt my most isolated and anxious, I turned to creativity to try and help me process and express the feelings I had about my situation,” says Kenny speaking to CNN Travel from the UK, where she’s living in lock down.

“It ended up being a real life saver for me and gave me an entirely new perspective. My world was feeling very small, and it was so nice to have it expand again, despite the lack of physical travel.

There really is no place quite like the imagination and you can use it to take you anywhere.”

Kenny showcases screenshots of scenes she comes across on her Street View wanderings: pastel colored houses amid arid landscapes in Texas or cacti dotting the streets of Arizona and children with blurred out faces playing against a mountainous backdrop in Chile.

Kenny took this shot of a service station in Winslow, Arizona, United States.

Kenny’s Instagram feed is soothingly aesthetic.

She’s meticulous about the framing of her images. She searches for perfect lighting conditions and pops of color.

And she embraces, rather than hides, the image’s provenance.

Sometimes the Google car kicks up dust that obscures the scenes. These images, shrouded in a layer of dust, are some of Kenny’s favorites.

Kenny found this scene in the Sechura District of Piura, Peru.

“I love Google Street View,” she says. “Just the scale of it and the ambition to map every street in the world is mind boggling. The fact you can jump from one side of the world to another in seconds and travel through a parallel world that is essentially billions of images stitched together, is just extraordinary.”

The more she explored the virtual world, the more Kenny noticed common threads and themes that unite countries and knit together continents.

“It made me realize just how similar we all are. Even though I was doing my traveling from home, strangely it made me feel more connected to the world than ever,” she says.

Her favorite countries to visit include Peru, Chile, Mongolia, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan. Often, Kenny lingers on spots that she can’t imagine ever visiting in “real” life.

“I was really drawn to the to the desert and I think it might be because it both terrifies me and fascinates at the same time,” she ponders.

“As someone with agoraphobia, the desert is quite daunting with no easy escape or exit. Perhaps I was always looking for images that represented me and my anxiety in some way and that drove me to certain places and environments.”

If anyone wants to follow in her digital footsteps, Kenny suggests starting with Mongolia or Kyrgyzstan.

“If you discover anything interesting, please let me know,” she says.

Living with agoraphobia

Kenny suffers from agoraphobia and finds traveling abroad tough.

Kenny’s images don’t just highlight how to travel the world virtually. They also offer a window into living with anxiety.

She says she wants to shine a spotlight on living with mental health conditions.

Kenny initially worried about telling her followers about her situation, but being candid only initiated further connection, empathy and understanding.

She relates this back to our present situation.

With our health, livelihoods and day-to-day life all under threat and compromised, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

“It’s such a scary time and it’s no surprise that people are anxious and fearful,” says Kenny.

“My situation was different but I completely understand the frustration of not being able to travel far from home and the feeling of isolation.”

This photo is from Arequipa, Peru.

Kenny says her Street View portraits changed her life – not just because they offered creative opportunities. Most importantly, the project prevented her from feeling alone.

“It has connected me with people from all over the world and I now have a truly global community. They have been a huge support to me through some tough times,” she says.

Kenny encourages anyone suffering right now to reach out via the digital world, and perhaps to find purpose amid the unknown, if they can.

“For me, I found my joy through my creative work,” she says. “I wanted to turn my limitations into something positive and fulfilling and I hope anyone else that is searching can find their own pathway too.”

Future travel

Since the project took off, Kenny has traveled to New York for a solo exhibition.

Since the project took off, Kenny had a solo exhibition in New York, sponsored by Google. This was a milestone moment in more ways than one, as it involved her traveling from her home in the UK to the United States.

Right now, Kenny’s currently working on a photo book, entitled “Many Nights,” in collaboration with poet Emily Berry.

She hopes it will be published later this year.

“We’ve been working on it for a very long time and I can’t wait to share it with everyone, especially as it’s so relevant to our times,” says Kenny.

Kenny found this scene in Ulaanbaater, Mongolia.

There are still countries Kenny’s not visited yet – not every country is on Street View right now. She hopes Google will map more destinations in Africa and the Middle East.

After years spent exploring the world via a window into the unknown, Kenny has amassed a collection of some 40,000 images.

“I’m not sure where all of these findings are going to take me, but I don’t feel like I have finished my Street View journey just yet,” she says.

Photos copyright Google. Created by Jacqui Kenny.