From beginning to end, the whole thing was simply surreal. Never did I
imagine I would ever take part in a Spencer Tunick photo shoot. Heck, I
don’t even get down to my skivvies in women’s locker rooms without a towel or
some other cover-up. Yet here I was, in the middle of the night, sitting on a
white plastic beach chair among a throng of likeminded Israelis at the Dead Sea
“Naked Sea” project. Shaking my head, I couldn’t believe my birthday-induced
self-dare exactly a month prior had gone so far.
It had just been too
tempting a concept. On the one hand, to raise consciousness about the shrinking
Dead Sea – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently-named finalist in the
New7Wonders of Nature competition. On the other, and even more
importantly for me, to show that Israelis are human beings too, not gun-toting
militaristic animals as portrayed far too often in the press.
it was the final project of a group of five communications students at the
Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya two years earlier which had piqued
the renowned photographer’s interest, thanks to their Facebook page, titled,
“Spencer Tunick Puts Israel on the Map.” Its premise? Simple: to change Israel’s
image by introducing the world to some of Israel’s natural beauty while
dispelling some of the myths about its people. “If we’re naked, then we are,
most likely, unarmed.”
An environmentalist and American Jew with deep
ties to Israel, Tunick threw himself behind the project, together with his
friend Avi Fruchter, and raised the necessary funds, through Kickstarter and
other venues, to bring the idea to fruition.
There were plenty of
obstacles, from the small-minded but rather muted opposition of some
ultra-Orthodox MKs who likened the event to a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah to
the last minute pull-out (including funding) by the site’s Megilot Regional
Council. Nonetheless, the event took place almost without a hitch.
began to gather at around 11 p.m. Friday night at discretely designated
spots around Israel for an experience not soon to be forgotten. Newcomers
tentatively approached individuals waiting for buses nowhere yet in sight,
hesitatingly asking “Is it here?,” to be greeted with knowing smiles and nods by
other participants. Everyone sat quietly waiting for a sign of organizers,
information...well, anything, since details were rather murky at that
point. The atmosphere was very subdued – a collection of people a bit lost in
their own private thoughts about what was to follow.
Security men began
to set up lines, engines were revved up, bureaucratic hurdles were overcome and
three hours later, 20 buses began to trundle through the night from around the
country to an unknown destination at the southern site. At 4 a.m., 1,000
Israelis, along with a smattering of tourists – some of whow had flown in
especially for the occasion – were seated under starry skies on a sloping,
pebble-covered beach, awaiting instructions from Tunick, who was about to shoot
his first nude installation in Israel.
FOR THE most part, people came
alone. They came in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. The
majority were 30-40 years old, but participants ranged from 18- 78. There were
also couples, pregnant women and some older folks. In anticipation and no doubt
still stuffed from the traditionally copious Friday night family meal, and tired
due to the heat and early hour, the crowd remained – uncharacteristically for
Israelis – complacent and quiet. No complaints. Waiting.
on his ladder, megaphone in hand, Spencer explained that as the nephew of
members of Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev, his over 20 trips to Israel over the
years included periodic visits to the beautiful Dead Sea. As a dedicated
environmentalist, he said he was deeply saddened by the devastation that’s
causing the tremendous landmark to shrink and slowly disappear, and had decided
to raise global awareness about the salt-water wonder’s plight through his
now-famous artworks. His heartfelt words drew a round of applause from the
Back in Tel Aviv before departure, one of the guys
waiting suddenly had a “eureka moment.”
“I’ve got it!” he said. “I know
what he’s going to do with us. He’s going to have us float in the Dead Sea!”
Some greeted the revelation with skepticism but for most, it made a lot of
sense. After all, the instructions had clearly listed a towel among the
necessary things not to forget to bring.
Sure enough, the photographer
finally let everyone in on the big secret: the four shots would include floating
time in the Dead Sea – and a mud bath!
Israelis are a fun-loving, uninhibited,
boisterous, confident and usually loud people, but nudism is certainly not the
norm around here. It’s not a prudish country, but women do not sunbathe topless
and people tend to keep themselves covered for the most part. The
combined unspoken trepidation and sense of adventure was
Participants were given some instructions on safety procedures
in the water but, due to the tremendous time constraints on the shots due to the
light (and, as we were told later, an 8 a.m. deadline on the nudity permit) – we
were given very little time to prepare.
Within minutes, anticipating the
order to “drop your drawers,” everyone was already covering all body parts with
suntan lotion and gingerly removing the less revealing articles of clothing.
Finally, as if to say “oh, what the heck,” we all got down to birthday suit
WHAT HAD seemed so disconcerting suddenly became very natural, even
if many still discretely tried to cover private parts. Soon, a long line was
formed, awaiting the impending entry into the water as the sun began to
At that point, having overcome the initial embarrassment of
standing completely in the buff in the middle of nowhere and with complete
strangers no less, Israeli humor sprung forth. Suddenly, a familiar cry went out
and within seconds, all 1,000 naked participants were shouting and clapping the
battle-cry of the summer’s social justice demonstrations: “Ha’am, doresh, tzedek
hevrati!” (the people demand social justice!).
The slogan soon
transformed into “the people demand removing one’s undies,” followed by a slew
of very Israeli in jokes about peeping toms in Israeli cult movies or sitcoms,
as the crowd moved down the hill together, careful of the pebbles and of one
This was the one place where there wasn't going to be any
pushing, shoving and prodding – and certainly no looking at anything but your
neighbor’s face! All the participants entered the water, with the first in
moving far out so as to allow space for everyone. First shot:
Everyone was on their knees, with only their shoulders, necks
and heads visible to the camera. By that point, intrusive peeping toms had
appeared in three ultralights and a small plane, swooping down and taking
pictures with huge zoom lenses, frightening the participants as well as angering
Spencer and his team. Despite his now-inaudible shouting over the din,
instructions were nonetheless followed.
Second shot: floating (on the
back), heads in the direction of the north. Once that was completed, all 1,000
Israelis stood up nude and flipped the flying invaders the bird! Third and
fourth shot: everyone was dispersed on mud terraces at different levels to be
photographed at a distance from the front and back.
Fifth shot: men were
photographed in the Dead Sea again and Tunick’s right-hand man hand-picked about
a third of the women participants, who oohed and aahed as “quality”
cosmetically-enhanced mud, provided by an event sponsor, the new 417 cosmetics
company, was made available to slather all over ourselves for a special,
The subtext of the naked Israelis was bizarre, even
unnerving, and no doubt lost on the photographer. As the black humor emerged, it
was clear that almost everyone was experiencing fleeting thoughts of a Holocaust
nature, with one quipping, “well, at least this time they’re ordering us to get
naked in our own country.” Several other such remarks were made as the men and
women were separated or went to take showers. One wonders how long these images
will remain an indelible part of our national psyche.
everyone was attentive and helpful, lending a hand to help one another walk
across the ragged terrain – nude meant no shoes or sandals. A slew of volunteers
were on hand to spray water into the eyes, hands or mouths of the salty and
muddy participants, carefully averting their eyes from anything but the faces of
the parched individuals. One woman fainted and a group rushed to her aid,
stopping the shoot until volunteers could evacuate her.
The women helped
cover each other with mud and shower each other off, all shyly smiling in a
moment of sisterly bonding.
Sunrise at the Dead Sea: a beautiful,
pristine moment to join the swarm of humanity silently bobbing in our natural
wonder. The same thought was undoubtedly running through all of our
This week of all weeks, Israel appears to be bereft of friends.
The future of one peace accord is up in the air, maybe two. Strategic alliances
with former partners are being ruptured by bellicose leaders. The promise of
spring has led to the anger of summer, focusing the wrath of the rabble on the
upstart nation in the ‘hood rather than coping with unmet promises of the
revolutions. And violence looms at the end of the week, no matter what is
decided by the United Nations with regard to the Palestinian claim for
Amid this sea of hatred lies a country with a people yearning
for a better future and fearful of the noxious rhetoric that’s been all too
prevalent as of late. Hopefully, the lens through which the world perceives
Israel and Israelis has been momentarily widened to capture a different
The writer is co-founder of Cisreal, a non-profit organization
designed to improve Israel’s image in Europe.