Israel Exposed: Hundred disrobe to draw eyes to the Dead Sea

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More than 1,000 nude Israelis pose for American art photographer Spencer Tunick's first Middle East mass shoot on September 17, 2011 at the shores of the Dead Sea, Israel. (Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

The Dead Sea came briefly to life on Saturday, as 1,200 Israelis shed their clothes and posed with their arms at their sides for the American photographer Spencer Tunick, whose business is making art from public nudity on a mass scale.

The idea was to draw attention to the steady decline of the famously salty lake, which exposes more and more of its own flanks each year.  The Dead Sea is growing ever-deader, as less and less water reaches it from the Jordan River at one end, and more and more water is taken out of it by chemical farms at the other.

Organizers of the mass shoot timed it as voting winds up in the Seven Natural Wonders of Nature contest.  The hope is a winning designation in that private contest will create pressure for Israel and its neighbors to join hands and make the bid for a UN World Heritage Site, which would set in motion the changes necessary to salvage the truly striking, entirely unique landscape.

But there was more to it than that.

“One of the things that came out of discussions that we had with people: When you think of Israel around the world, they only see pictures of tanks and pictures of terrorism,” says Ari Gottesman, one of the organizers.

This wasn’t that.

“It isn’t,” Gottesman notes, “what you’re used to seeing in the Middle East.”

And yet the project involved a nearly military precision – gathering more than 1,000 people by bus from around Israel in the dead of night, in order to arrive in time for the pre-dawn shoot– as well as secrecy: The precise location, Mineral Beach, was kept closely guarded, in part to discourage gawkers and in part because Israelis are not all of one mind on these things.

Ultra-orthodox Jews objected to the project on moral grounds, which accounted, again in part, for the timing.  Gottesman said Saturday morning was chosen mostly because Saturday is the one day of the week everyone in Israel has off. But it was also noted that the ultra-orthodox do not take motorized transport from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.  So Tunick climbed onto his stepladder just before 6 a.m. Saturday, the dead center of the Jewish Sabbath.

First he lifted his megaphone, to direct the models, then his camera. There were four tableaux: One of the nudes standing on the sea bed, one of them floating in the famously buoyant water, one with everyone waving, and, finally, one with the people standing on shoreline that until recently was underwater, to show how dramatically the sea has receded.

And though the shoot was not far from the actual ancient locales of Sodom and Gomorrah, Sunday morning’s newspapers brimmed with first-person accounts of how innocent it all felt. “There wasn’t any sexual harassment here. No one stared,” a Tel Aviv resident identified only as Oren said in Yedioth Ahronoth. A great many of the models volunteered from Tel Aviv, famous for its liberal if not libertine ways, though the same story quoted a 26-year-old woman from Haifa as saying she’d dieted for a month “and went to a cosmetician because  you know where people are going to see you.”

“Everybody was beautiful,” a woman with “gleaming eyes” told Roni Levin in a first-person account in Ha’aretz. “’All the things that bother us so much on a daily basis,’ she explained, ‘just added to everyone’s beauty.’ And she was right. It took me exactly five minutes from when the bras and underwear came off to stop staring at everyone.”

Tunick, whose previous shoots included Australia, Venezuela and Belgium and Cleveland made the point that he can do his work only in democracies, underscoring Israel’s frequent reminder that it’s the only one in the region (though Iraqi does keep holding those elections).  The organizers agreed but, as Israelis, were more impressed by the response.

“You’ve got 1,000 people who are willing to take off their clothes,” says Gottesman, “in a very small country, where everybody knows everybody else.”