“Get out. I need to go to my Mind Palace”
Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock, S2 : The Hounds of Baskerville
We have been captives of the global COVID-19 pandemic for a while. Forced to stay home in relative isolation, we’ve been deprived of a human experience we all hold dear – travel, a need that will remain unfulfilled for the foreseeable future. Well, at least in physical form, as travel businesses, tourism organisations and content creators around the world have since responded en masse with high volumes of online content : they’re keeping their branding alive, their businesses active, and hoping for a quick return to normality. Still, the question emerges: is the pandemic going to have a permanent effect in the way we experience travel? From new dress codes and accessories, to dealing with emergent fears and the new logistics of social distancing, industry thinkers and business analysts are currently hard at work, trying to determine the shape of future trends.
To confront this looming conundrum, however, may be counter productive. Change is upon us, travel or otherwise, and embracing it is the honest way to go. At the least, we can ask the not so obvious questions pertaining to travel : can we let go and move forward without lowering our expectations, without lamenting the freedoms we lost, or the conveniences we have enjoyed in the past? Can we break the shackles of certain deep rooted travel habits, or find new ways to alleviate their detrimental effect on the physical or natural environment? To answer these questions, I’ve looked beyond mainstream definitions of travel, and looked for answers in the fringes instead – even outside the traditional travel community. Inspiring individuals came to mind, people who have already been there, and done that. And top of my list, a lady who has travelled the four corners of the world : from the vast steppes of Mongolia, to the highlands of Peru, to small town USA, and beyond. She has captured day to day life in her beautiful technicolor stills everywhere she’s been. Her stage is the steppe, the desert, the quiet street. Her actors are local people, animals, flora, colours, the day/night cycle, and the change of seasons. The striking visual narratives she’s created compliment the places visited, bringing these faraway places to life..
..and she never left home.
The Agoraphobic Traveller
I’ve come across Jacqui Kenny’s work on instagram a few years back. The arresting quality of her breathtaking photos only told part of her story : beset by agoraphobia and anxiety that limited her capacity to travel physically since a young age, Jacqui found a surprising refuge in Google Street view : she began roaming faraway places, capturing stills, experiencing travel freedom at last. Google Street View has become her redemption, her method of transport, and a powerful medium of expression ever since. Our exchange, related below, slowly matured between October 2018 and April 2020 :
What is the story behind your first instagram post ? How did you travel to the first destination of this new style of journey ?
I’m not really sure why I launched my Instagram with that particular image(a woman and child in the snow in front of a colourful residential block in Darkhan City, Mongolia). When I started my account I had already spent about six months searching through Street View, so I would have had quite few images I was keen to show. I actually started my project with several Instagram accounts, one for people (hence the name streetview.portraits), one for landscapes and one for animals. I realised pretty quickly that it made a lot more sense to merge them all into one.
My first ever destination was Brazil. I think I was checking out a ‘Street Art’ Google street view tour and it sparked my curiosity enough to continue looking around. I was quite amazed with the images I could capture and I found it so freeing to be able to roam the streets of Rio de Janeiro with absolutely no anxiety or fear of a panic attack. I also loved how the people looked miniature, and the scenes looked almost stage like. The world of Street View felt both familiar yet otherworldly at the same time, which I loved. My friend Emily said for her ‘it’s as if they are postcards from places I’ve visited in a dream’. I also thought it was so amazing you could jump from one country to the next in seconds but always land in the past. I felt a bit like a time traveller.
I might have launched my Instagram with the image of the woman and child because both Darkhan City and Mongolia had left a profound mark on me. I had journeyed through quite a few incredible countries by that stage but nothing had quite prepared me for the beauty of Mongolia. It couldn’t have felt more different from my life and flat in London and I really thought I had entered the most magical of worlds. From the most incredible architecture, gers, traditional mixed with modern, dramatic landscapes, wild roaming horses in the countryside, to the most extraordinary light. It is a land of vast emptiness, twice the size of Eastern Europe but with a population of just over 3 million. I spent months searching through Mongolia and it really helped shape my new vision and aesthetic.
You have said in the past that you started experiencing panic attacks early in your life. Did you have the chance to experience international travel before that? What are the levels that one can compare a formal travel experience and your style of travel experience?
The idea of international travel excited me so much more than the reality of it. I had (and sometimes still do, even though I know it’s more of a dream) this jolly vision of me out in the world, carefree and adventurous. I actually thought that was a true reflection of who I was until I started travelling. Sadly, by the time I started in my early 20’s I had already experienced very acute panic attacks, but because I never got any help around my mental health I had no idea that travel and my anxiety were connected. So off I went into the world but unfortunately my panic attacks just kept getting worse and my world eventually became very small until it almost shrunk to nothing. There was always an anxiety within me and I was never able to be in the present moment, almost like I was in survival mode the whole time, trying to keep in control for reasons unknown to me, an internal lostness.
I remembered recently that when I was a child I would walk to school with an imaginary elastic wrapped around my ankle that was tethered to my house. As I walked I could feel it stretch and when it was almost at breaking point, I would lift my foot to release the elastic, only for it to re-appear. So my anxiety must of been there from a young age but because i didn’t understand my feelings I was using visual metaphors to help make sense of it. I think i still use visual metaphors now to help process more complex emotions.
So as you can imagine It was such a relief to travel through Street View with so much ease. Jumping in with with no plan, rules or strategy, just pure discovery. I also think over time it also gave me a zoomed out look at the world. It was so easy to spot similarities from one place to the next and it made me realise just how connected we really are. Without having to worry about borders or travel restrictions, the similarities really stood out for me. It reminded me of how astronauts feel when see earth from space. They get a shift of awareness, a sense of the bigger picture. I was going through a time in my life where I was feeling trapped and my world small (in both the physical sense and in my mind) and this experience expanded it like I never imagined and it opened up a completely new pathway. It fuelled my imagination and my sense of wonder, something I haven’t felt for a while.
Obviously the experience is so completely different from a formal travel experience and it’s very hard to compare. Even though I did feel a connection to the places I visited, It suited me fine that my brain wasn’t ‘tricked’ into thinking I was actually there, like i’m sure VR would do. The other big difference for me is the high camera angle, it makes you feel quite detached from the scene, it’s constantly reminding you that you’re not really there.
Your account is not simply a collection of images. There’s an underlying artistry, an expression of skill and feeling through your choice of composition and post-processing. There is a creative process next to the healing process – was that the intention from the start , or something that was cultivated along the way?
My background is in the film industry. When I was younger of my main jobs was to assist the film directors with their visual treatments, which helped them sell in their vision. I did this job for about seven years and it involved me looking and selecting from the best photography in the world. Over this time I must of looked at hundreds of thousands of incredible and culturally important photographs and it was though this experience I discovered my passion and love for visual communication, especially photography. This is where I gained an understanding of what made a good photo and so when I went searching through street view, I felt I had a vast well of reference and inspiration to pull from. I have always loved photographers who fuse fiction and reality, like the master Luigi Ghirri. I also pull from my film background and often imagine little moving vignettes in my head while I’m searching around. I often search for images that I think would look great in a movie.
I have worked with a lot of great creatives over my time but have never had the chance to realise my own creative potential. So It was a lot of fun for me to discover my own visual language and voice through Street View. It was exciting to think I had this whole world to curate in my own way. At first I loved everything and anything (from a dog chasing the car to a camel on the road) but as time went on my aesthetic evolved and I started getting a much clearer vision of what I wanted. I wanted to have a distinct voice but I also wanted it to feel universal so hopefully others could connect with the images too. Street View is made up of billions of images, so if you don’t know what you’re looking for, it becomes very confusing. It’s not as easy as it looks.
Once I was in tune with what I was looking for I started to see them so clearly, they almost popped out at me and sometimes I would audibly gasp.
I discovered there’s a name for this. Photographer Joel Meyerowitz calls it ‘the gasp reflect’.
“If you keep looking you get that moment. When you find that moment that you register in your psyche, that “gasp” is the moment. That’s it. That is where the picture is hidden in plain sight. Our gasp is inspiration. We breathe in. We charge the brain with a flush of oxygen, and you immediately perceive yourself and the world in a new relationship. “
This is when I started to see that the images I was finding were just as much a reflection on me and what I was going through than the places themselves. I started to see abstract and visual themes of isolation, loneliness, hope, dreams, darkness, light, control, perfectionism and acceptance.
What about your choice of destinations. Was there a longing for visiting the particular places you selected? There is an understandable tendency for mostly choosing the more desolate places to travel to, but also some bolder choices, ie dense metropolitan spaces such as Belgium, Mexico or Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. Did you gradually feel more empowered to visually pursue your travel curiosity? Is it comfortable visiting places that might have been out of reach for you otherwise?
I don’t think I ever felt anxiety while searching through Street View. It never gave me the same feelings of panic or anxiety, my brain always knew I was at home and safe.
It was a really great experience travelling without anxiety and seeing places that I probably wouldn’t have ever travelled to physically. And unlike a travel documentary or travel book, I had complete control over where I went and what I decided to experience. It was all on my terms and it was my curiosity that took me to where I wanted to go.
It has definitely made me want to go to a lot of these places for real and I can’t help but feel that I could do it now with a bit more ease. I don’t know if that’s to do with my Street View travels or perhaps it has more to do with the fact that I feel more confident after sharing my work and my struggles with mental health. It doesn’t seem to have the same power over me like it once did and I feel more connected to the world and a little less fearful. I’ve been given so much support from people all over the world that I don’t feel so alone with it. I’m sure it’s a combination of all of the above that’s helped me.
One thing to note with agoraphobia is that a desolate environment could be just an anxiety inducing as a busy metropolitan area. Any place that makes you feel like you don’t have easy access to an exit, or are too far away from home, can trigger panic. An isolated place far from home can terrify me as much as a busy city.
It is a fact that mass tourism has been turning travel into a less unique, and sometimes daunting experience in recent years. Can the average tourist’s obsessive attraction to luxury, famous landmarks, or popular sea views remain justified, when there’s evidence of the negative social and environmental consequences ? Could there be an alternative way to experience travel?
Yes, absolutely. As we know capitalism generates a cycle of wants, and the 20th century fossil fuel economy relentlessly cultivates a desire in us to travel to these beautiful places, restaurants and hotels and then to take pictures of it for Instagram.. It has been clear to me for a very long time that this form of travel is unsustainable. The environmental impacts alone has been enough to question the craziness of it all. With what is going on in the world now, I’m sure a lot of people will reevaluate their future holiday plans and look at new and sustainable ways of travelling through the world. There will be a a climate change and Covid-19 pincer movement and people will question, do I need or want to go to these places?
Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed speaking to friends who are becoming more aware of this and are spending a lot more of their time experiencing their local areas and enjoying what is close by. I’m currently working on a photo book with the wonderful poet Emily Berry and we discuss this very thing. I love this excerpt from the essay she has written for our book.
“Sometimes we depress ourselves by thinking that there is no cure for our suffering. And we may give up for a time and stop looking. But we should never stop looking – I don’t mean looking for the cure, I mean, just looking, which is a way of travelling while standing still. Patrick Kavanagh said that ‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience’, a reminder that to study whatever is close at hand can also broaden our horizons. ‘We know that writers, like readers,’ writes Tara Bergin, ‘perform their acts of transportation regardless of any physical distance they may travel: Emily Dickinson; Joseph Cornell (their open cages).’
We’re also seeing the demand and acceleration of ‘stay at home’ cultural experiences, from virtual galleries to huge festivals been held in Minecraft. It will be very interesting to see what is creatively possible when you are not limited by location and also what stays and what develops after our restrictions are lifted.
I am a fan of urban exploration and abandoned, or non-extant spaces. There’s a poignant and creative community around this type of experience – attracted to the tranquility and emptiness of such places, their long-forgotten stories and history, the dramatic photography – but also the most agreeable lack of mass tourism. Have you tried this form of experience ?
I haven’t but I would absolutely love to participate in this type of experience and way of seeing the city. It sounds very peaceful. I don’t get around that much in London as I’m not the biggest fan of crowds and queues, so this sounds like it would could be great for me.
I think it’s important to challenge what is interesting. My concern with more popular tourist destinations is that you have such precise information that I think it can become a bit boring and predicable. I once heard about an artist who flips travel on its head by experiencing it in new ways. Instead of taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower he would stand underneath it and takes pictures looking out at the people looking at the Eiffel Tower. Or he would travel to a city with a friend and they would start their journey from different ends and see if they can find each other.
I also love the concept of the ‘derive’, a revolutionary strategy put forward by Guy Debord : he defined the dérive (the drift) as “a mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. It is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there”.
What is your next travel destination ?
I stopped my travels through Street View a while ago now. One day I just woke up and thought, right, time to move on now. I had done all I could do on Street View and it was time for reflection, a new project and possibly a bit more physical travel, even if it’s just local to begin with.
In saying that, now we are in lock down, I have been revisiting Street View a little. I have over 40,000 screen shots and I’ve been going through them to see if I’ve missed anything that would be good to share on Instagram.
I might also be doing a commissioned project that involves searching through Tasmania, Australia. So that might turn out to be my next adventure.
Once we’re out of lock down I’m really keen to do a trip to Dungeness, in person. It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I heard we have a desert in the UK! It looks very surreal and intriguing. Up until now I’ve been too anxious to travel there but I feel like I could achieve it now.
Taming the Sensorium
My exchange with Jacqui prompted a series of thoughts : I realised that we process travel experiences according to widely accepted norms, and frame it within our expectations. And then, we take it for granted, like the certainty of celestial motions. But sitting here at home on my 7th week of isolation, prevented from travelling with no foreseeable change in the horizon, I find myself walking in her shoes, appreciating how liberating it would be to be able to appreciate travel her way. We are conditioned to experience the world according to our adopted sensory perceptions, and in general, we are not very well prepared for situations outside our sensory range.
Trapped inside this somewhat egocentric view of the world, many of us tend to overlook the fact that there’s many among us who face challenges with eyesight, hearing, or mobility, and yet enjoy equally rewarding physical and emotional experiences. Tony Giles comes to mind, the blind author and world traveller who has visited an amazing 115 countries over a period of 20 years, in defiance of his debilitating condition. Or the late Mats Steen, the 25 year old suffering from terminal muscular dystrophy who led a parallel life inside the World of Warcraft universe as the valiant Ibelin : sagas of the legendary warrior of Azeroth are still being recited online by his comrades in arms. Quite often, it is the least perceptible barriers to travel that are easier to overlook : mental health, thinking of the Agoraphobic Traveller’s example, is as much of a challenge as any other sensory obstacle. And yet, the message that comes across from these moving personal stories is that our inner wanderlust can be much stronger than anything that’s holding us back. It’s a source of travel energy we can all tap into.
We currently don’t have the technology for a like for like substitute to real life travel. A futuristic Total Recall style experience seems too distant. But daunting as it may seem at first, conditioning our mind to blossom through travel without travelling might be less of an intensive mental exercise, and more of a latent skill we all carry inside. This is, after all, how our mental faculties work : translating and combining a multitude of inputs into memories and emotions. So even when we we find ourselves confined by chance, need or malady, our mind still wanders, creating a rich tapestry of experiences out of all available sensory and extra-sensory inputs. In most advanced societies, we define our available range of senses, (our sensorium) according to a typified range of inputs. These revolve around our five basic senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste), and also a well founded thought system we acquire from an early age through our social interactions.
But here’s the twist : anthropologists argue that this is only a preconception of our sensory array that’s prevalent in advanced societies. As David Howes and Constance Classen indicated in The Varieties of Sensory Experience (1991), not every culture understands it the way many of us do. For example, analysis of the cultural traditions of the Hausa of North-Central Nigeria suggest that they prefer non-visual ways of experiencing the world, emphasising their taste and smell. While the Suya, indigenous people of Brazil, regard vision not just as the pragmatic ability to see, but as an enhanced capability for ie a hunter to be able to skilfully hunt for game and fish, placing emphasis on this augmented dexterity, rather than the actual quality of their eyesight. Some Javanese cultures claim to meld sensory and emotional experiences into one : in our sensory system, a taste on our tongue, is also a touch on our body, and elicits an emotional response. In Java, it’s all merged into one unique sense, combining taste, feeling and emotion. So our adopted sensorium is a multifaceted array of natural and socially acquired components. Therefore, the framing of our world, and indeed the definitions of our travel experiences through our unique sensorium are restricted by our social norms as much as by our physical capacity to experience.
This observation is not entirely new : the Greek philosopher Plato, maintained that we are all bound to our adopted sensory perceptions in his Allegory of the Cave. The bound prisoners inside the cave are facing a wall, experiencing life as a shadow play. They are confined in a sort of ancestral Matrix, unaware that nothing they see is real, and yet taking it for granted. There’s a bright fire behind the prisoners, and shadows of objects and puppets dance in front of them. These shadows, become the only reality the prisoners can experience. Now, if only one prisoner managed to break their bonds and turn around, they’d be blinded by the fire light, and would find the new reality painful, and even hard to comprehend. A situation that could only become worse if someone was actually dragged outside the cave, where seeing the sun for the first time would inflict even more pain. Plato saw philosophy as the bright light that confronted us, and learning to conquer the shock of looking at it would gradually grant us wisdom, until we’d no longer feel comfort in the dark cave of ignorance. Some philosophers pointed out that Plato’s allegory is about our innate inability to grasp what is outside our sensory confines, and how we can transcend this somewhat primal state by shifting our perspective, attaining illumination.
The Drift : toward a new definition of travel
But there’s another school of philosophers that interpret a political subtext in Plato’s allegory – a symbolic clash between the philosopher and the corruption of the prevailing political condition. Hannah Arendt saw Plato’s Allegory of the Cave as a paradigm for social awakening and the creation of new community standards. Arguably, the dominant economic and travel systems of recent decades erect as many barriers towards wholesome travel experiences as any illness or condition might have. The new malaise is the lack of free time, the scarcity of expendable income, over-saturated travel destinations, global pollution, or armed conflict. Couple these with a variety of natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis or, as it were, a global pandemic, and you’ll soon realise see that traditional, long established concepts of travel are challenged, and indeed threatened by forces beyond our reasonable control. In the end, smashing through these barriers to achieve meaningful travel experiences might require new definitions of what constitutes one.
Breaking free from our personal limitations or preconceptions doesn’t necessarily mean disruption. It doesn’t have to involve fictional visions of a not so distant future where non physical travel has replaced actual travel. But it could mean that there is ample space to redefine what constitutes a travel experience to include delimited or non-physical interactions, the same way that filmography or gaming have become multi billion dollar industries by dramatising actual, or simulating fictional human interactions. It is a concept that’s already been taking shape in recent years, and is currently upon us. It emerges at the forefront as a potentially lasting response to the major quandary faced by the travel industry amidst a global lock down.
In 2010, Unagi Travel in Japan began offering stuffed animal tours in Tokyo. Sonoe Azuma, the founder, explained how motivation was “to offer adventures for people who cannot physically travel: people in hospitals, the physically challenged, people who are busy, etc” . In April 2020, both Airbnb and Atlas Obscura have launched their new range of Online Experiences aimed at the lockdown market, alongside their core Adventures/Trips/ Experiences range. These unique travel products are available online at a fraction of the price of the “real” experience, require only basic, widely available communication technology, and of course involve no personal interactions among participants. What was niche a decade ago, has become an easily accessible convenience today, and is rapidly transforming into a brave new type of travel commodity for tomorrow. And it might be a soft sell – because subconsciously, we’ve always been ready for the advent of non-physical travel products.