How One Woman Travels the Planet Using Google Street View


Jacqui Kenny does most of her travelling near the equator, drawn by the light, the colours, the architecture. She seeks out remote destinations with extreme temperatures and austere landscapes, always preferring to explore roads less taken. And the photos she returns with are every bit as unconventional as the way that she travels.

Kenny uses Google Street View to see the world. The platform has become her personal archeological site, a place where she unearths images culled from the past and posts them for the world to see. Her Instagram feed is like a museum of magical moments from around the globe, captured by the camera that juts from the roof of the Google Street View car.

December 2, 2019

“I’m drawn to pairs and the repetition of subjects, because I can see a connection with my own repetition of thoughts when it comes to my mental health. I found this photo after stumbling across a camel racetrack.”

Two camels in the United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates.

She’s often asked what draws her to her photos. They aren’t what you’d find on most people’s travel pages, Kenny says. “I look for places that show a little isolation, that have some dreaminess to them. But there’s also always a little colour, a bit of hope, which combines all of my feelings, not just my struggles.”

Kenny’s struggles are what led her to adopt Street View as both her medium and her muse. Two decades ago, the native New Zealander travelled widely. She holidayed in Hawaii and road–tripped across France. Until one night when she returned to her villa on the Amalfi Coast and suddenly found she couldn’t breathe. “It felt like my heart was exploding,” Kenny says. “I’d experienced panic attacks before, but never like this.”

A cactus in the United States
United States.
A red and white chapel in Chile

She first started feeling inexplicable, increasingly overwhelming unease in her late teens, but back then no one really talked (at least not openly) about anxiety. “I didn’t want to admit something was wrong, because there was so much stigma then. At least we’re having conversations about it now – if I could have had them years ago, I wouldn’t have felt so alone, and it probably wouldn’t have escalated the way that it did.”

Kenny’s travels stopped. She was afraid to go anywhere in public where there was no easy escape if a panic attack hit. She gave up public transit and stopped going to business meetings, social events and the back of the supermarket. The list of things she avoided grew until she found herself becoming increasingly confined to her neighbourhood in London. In 2009, she was diagnosed with agoraphobia.

“I love seeing kids playing soccer. It doesn’t matter where in the world I go, if there are kids, there’s often a soccer ball. This photo is from Cajamarca, a city in the Andes Mountains.”

Kids playing soccer on a court in Peru
Two women outside a pink building in Senegal
A white horse grazes in Kyrgyzstan

But before long, and quite by accident, Kenny discovered another way to travel. Feeling isolated, she opened Google Street View and began wandering the streets of Rio de Janeiro. “I was blown away by the beauty of the city. I’d only ever used Street View to look at my house – it had never occurred to me that I could use it to explore amazing places around the planet.”

When Kenny “travels” full–time, she might spend 18 hours a day exploring a new city. She gets up, makes a cup of tea and opens her laptop, staying in a town until she finds the right moment to capture. Sometimes it takes weeks. “I’m always searching for that perfect image, frozen in time. Light is really important to me, and the image has to have something otherworldly about it. I know it’s right when I audibly gasp.”

Purple bougainvillea growing next to a white brick wall
Dust is kicked up on a dirt road in Romania

When she happens on a particularly wonderful moment – a dog gamely chasing the Street View car in Arequipa, Peru; a man in red pants standing at the top of a ladder, whitewashing a wall on a stark street in Veracruz, Mexico – she takes a screen shot and posts it on Instagram under the name the “Agoraphobic Traveller.”

For the first six months, Kenny had few followers. Now, she has 112,000 from 192 countries. Google sponsored a solo exhibition of her images in New York, and she is working on a book that will be released next summer. “My work has taken me into a whole new world of discovery, which is what travel can do for you, no matter how you do it.”

“This playground is in Tanaca, Arequipa. I’m drawn to isolated scenes and think it’s interesting how people interpret them. Some people tell me they see peace and calm in this shot, while others see loneliness. Some see light, some see dark. I like the ambiguity that some of my captures have shown.”

A swing set and slide along the coast of Tanaca
An ornate gate in the snowy landscape of Kyrgyzstan
A woman and child walk amongst the empty streets of a district in Mongolia

Kenny’s travels have connected her with people from all over the world. She gets daily messages from those who want to share their own travel experiences, or their personal struggles with agoraphobia, or who live close to the places she has journeyed to. Like the woman whose father was born near Jalisco, Mexico, who contacted Kenny to share how her posts brought back childhood memories. “She remembered Jalisco as a sun–stricken place that you could only reach by travelling many hours along dusty roads,” Kenny says. “A place where there was beauty and poetry in silent landscapes and lonely, colourful houses.”

“I fell in love with this house because it felt similar to scenes I often dream up in my head. I find myself drawn to houses because they’re a subject so central to my agoraphobia.”

A pink and white two-storey house in Peru

Becoming the Agoraphobic Traveller has made Kenny want to visit all of her digital discoveries; she plans to start with a trip to remote areas of Arizona. “I wouldn’t have found these places under normal circumstances,” she says. “I don’t want to be defined by my agoraphobia – it’s just part of who I am, and it’s helped shape how I see the world.”

Kenny recently flew to Barcelona and found that her anxiety was manageable. And, after months of therapy, she also attended her sister’s wedding back home in New Zealand. “This creative project has taught me that if you just do something a little different that suits you, it’s amazing what journey that can take you on. Even knowing that there’s another way of doing something can open up your whole world – and my world is finally opening up again.”