Greg Bruce talks to a woman whose fear of leaving home has transformed her into an Instagram success.

Twenty years ago, when Jacqui Kenny was in her mid-20s, having her first panic attack and assuming she was dying, she got herself to A&E, where the doctor assumed she was having a reaction to black bean sauce. Such was the state of mental health in New Zealand at the time.

It was years before she ate black bean sauce again but not so long before her next panic attack. Then came the depression. Then she moved to London, where she was diagnosed with agoraphobia.

She began treatment and started a successful digital production company with her new boyfriend.


The business lasted 10 years, the relationship's still going, though her struggles with anxiety ebbed and flowed but never went away. She's still scared by the prospect of travelling more than half an hour from her central London apartment.

When their business closed last year, Kenny watched her boyfriend and others walk into good jobs, the result of them building strong networks while she had been avoiding calls with clients and not leaving the office.

Soon - she can't remember how it started - she was filling her own days at home on Google Street View clicking along, often through mostly-isolated locations far removed from the type of places she was familiar with, taking thousands of screenshots and posting the best of them to Instagram under the name "Streetview Portraits".

As a way of coping with agoraphobia and unemployment, it was something no serious mental health professional would have endorsed.

For the first few months, nobody responded. Then, encouraged by a friend, she changed her bio to: "Agoraphobic Traveller. Agoraphobia & anxiety limit my ability to travel, so I've found another way to see the world."

People started contacting her: anxiety sufferers, others with agoraphobia, people wanting to talk about mental health. The media got interested: National Geographic, BBC, CNN, The New Yorker. Her Instagram followers ballooned into the tens of thousands. Her withdrawal from the world began propelling her back into it.

Last month, this woman - who doesn't like going to the back aisles of the supermarket across the road, who is terrified of flying, who suffers from social anxiety - got on a plane, flew to New York and mingled with hundreds of people at the first-ever exhibition of her Google Street View photographs.

"The whole night was a blur, to be honest," she says. "It was all a little bit too overwhelming."

Talking to Canvas via Skype recently, Kenny was effusive and articulate. She smiled compulsively. She said, "The amount of times I've had people say, 'Oh my goodness Jacqui, you're the happiest person I've ever met,' and I'm like, 'Oh goodness, I have not had one happy thought all day.'"

When she started therapy, Kenny said, one of the first things her therapist said to her was, "'Oh my goodness, your smile!' She could tell it was a mask."

But as has become well-known since Jim Carrey's 1994 blockbuster, masks are things we all wear.

While we talked, Kenny searched out a message she had just received from a complete stranger: "These are the messages that I get on a regular basis," she said, "and they are everything."

She read aloud: "I just spent about an hour browsing these beautiful images. Thank you for showing me how beautiful our world can be. On a personal note, this is an image of my hometown and it brings tears to my eyes because it brought back so many memories. I hope someday you're able to visit and truly experience how wonderful it is and all the other places you see."

Her voice was starting to waver. She read another message, this one from the person managing her New York exhibition: "I must tell you," it began, "an elderly woman came in today in tears of joy. Her mother has agoraphobia and this spoke so much to her and she wanted to thank you for your bravery and courage and tell you to keep fighting the good fight. Another lady just came in and once I told her about you, she broke down. Her best friend just ended his life because of his anxiety. She wanted to thank you for being a voice through art and travel to let others know it's okay to be different and to celebrate our differences.'"

Kenny was now in tears, struggling to speak.

"Sometimes I can't read them," she said, "because it's a lot to take in, right? People sharing their stories? It's amazing though."

"Did you think about that when you started doing it?" I asked. "That it might really connect with people?"

"No," she said, "I just thought I was taking a few silly shots with Google Street View. No way, never, ever in a million years could I have dreamed this up."