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.

Actually, 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.

People 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.

Perched 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 enthused participants.

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 palpable.

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 mode.

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 rise.

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 another.

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: bobbing.

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, Avatar-like shot.

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.

Throughout, 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 minds.

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 statehood.

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 reality.

The writer is co-founder of Cisreal, a non-profit organization designed to improve Israel’s image in Europe.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger