Getting Naked With 150 Strangers: Spencer Tunick Comes to Town
Note: This essay (never published) was written in 2012, just after I moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I share it in honor of the upcoming Dia de los Muertos. (And yes, I am in this photo :-)
Having been topless on public beaches and even spending a vacation once at a clothing optional venue in Tulum, Mexico, I used to feel pretty comfortable being naked in public. The pleasure of having your body kissed by sun and surf without the confines of even a string bikini trumped whatever trepidation I might have had about being ogled.
I had been living about 3 months in San Miguel de Allende, a colorful, surreal pueblo in central Mexico, and to help celebrate my new address, I was looking for something daring to do. For many years, I have played a little mind game. This involves forcing myself to do things that scare me, or somehow take me out of my comfort zone. In the past, this practice has served me well to understand or overcome certain fears or to discover something I didn’t know about myself. An opportunity arose that offered to challenge that supposed “naked comfort”of my relative youth. Spencer Tunick, the famed photographer noted for his pictures of sometimes hundreds or thousands of people together in public places—sans clothing— came to town to do a shoot for Dia de los Muertos or Day of the Dead.
One of Tunick’s most famous photos, from 2007 depicts 18,000 (yes, that’s right) naked bodies in the zocalo or town center in Mexico City.
Because of this, he was already well known in Mexico. This time around in San Miguel, he was looking for a sizable crowd to honor one of the most revered traditions in Mexico.
While I contemplated this opportunity, I had to ask myself what my body image was these days. Would I still feel natural, and liberated shedding my clothes in public as I used to when I was younger? Topless beaches are one thing, but this seemed to be a whole other level of naked. Despite the spell of insecurity that this prospect produced, and egged on by a friend, I decided to take the plunge.
There was, first of all, a general call online for interested parties. I was a bit put off at first when the web site requested a full length photo. Even though the request was with clothing, I wondered: were they trying to weed out the less than perfect bodies? I was concerned that this was not about the acceptance of all shapes and sizes, as Tunick has suggested in interviews, but some kind of voyeuristic playboy shoot, cloaked in art-speak.
Nevertheless, I sent in my photo and forgot about it. I suppose I was deemed acceptable because I received an email a few weeks later telling me when and where to go if I wanted to participate. As the day arrived, to say I was nervous was an understatement. I am sure I plucked and shaved and smoothed more than usual that morning. Perhaps I hadn’t thought this through. What if I saw someone I knew there? I reasoned that since I was new to town, no one would recognize or know me, and I could give myself this experience with a certain amount of “privacy”. Even still, since I am a teacher here, there was a lurking fear that I might spot (or be spotted by) an observant parent or two.
It should be noted that for those first months living in San Miguel, I think it had rained only twice, being fairly mild with warm, sunny days. What a surprise when on the day of the shoot at the end of October, it was raining and cold. Two things that don’t work well with naked (well, maybe the raining part, but it was cold rain!).
Hoping for a favorable weather change, and after heeding the website’s request for no jewelry or watches, and to wear easy on/off clothing, I took a cab to the location at the designated time. The shoot took place at a planned, upscale community with a bucolic setting.
When I arrived mid-afternoon since it was still raining, I found the participants all gathered under a covered patio, drinking and talking. I guess everyone thought it might be nice to know a thing or two about the people with whom you are about to shed your clothes.
I wandered to an open seat at a table occupied by a group of young men. They were immediately friendly, introducing themselves and telling me they were from Mexico City. As we chatted, I learned that a couple of them had been one of the 18,000 subjects from the famed 2007 photo and they could not believe their luck to have a repeat performance. Making the four hour drive to San Miguel was nothing for these hard-core fans (or hard-core exhibitionists?). These guys informed me that the shoot had been postponed due to the rain. Two hours of drinking and talking later, it was still raining. I couldn’t help but think that with each cocktail, everyone began to fantasize about their neighbor in the nude.
We started to feel a definite tension in the air from Tunick’s crew about what to do. After all the time, preparation and money spent, cancelling didn’t seem to be an option. Not to mention, a decision had to be made soon, as it would be dark in a couple of hours.
Finally, they decided to go ahead, as by this time, the rain had turned into a workable, steady spritz. As the team mobilized us to where we needed to be and give instructions, there was a fair amount of confusion. Despite this, there was an exciting vibe in the air, and we all remained cooperative and lively. I am confident the two hours of cocktails had something to do with this.
We moved en masse, still with umbrellas, down a steep hill, coming to an old building that was not much more than a glorified shed built above ground. Here, underneath the building with a wet and moldy dirt floor, we were instructed to disrobe. The procedure consisted of being handed a paper bag for our clothes. The bag had a number and this was also written on our wrists with a black sharpie. An elegant party coat check, this was not. Besides, where would we keep the ticket?
There was a lot of nervous laughter and some sidelong glances at this point. No one wanted to be seen checking out one another’s body parts, of course, and so we tried to make it seem as casual as possible that getting naked with a bunch of strangers was all in a day’s fun. I was reminded at this point that the act of removing clothing is in fact, often more provocative than actually being naked. When we take our clothes off in a more intimate setting, we generally don’t feel we are being judged on our inevitable imperfections. Doing it with a crowd however, seemed to highlight every flaw I imagined my body to possess. I couldn’t help but want to compare. Looking around after we all stripped however, I was pleased to see that there were indeed all shapes and sizes, not to mention all ages as well. The worst seemed to be over; the nervous laughter subsided and everyone seemed to relax. We had crossed over into naked oneness.
Since the title of this piece would be Spirits given that it was being shot near the Day of the Dead, after we handed over our bags, we were each given a sheer ghost-like piece of fabric. This served as a bit of covering for the more modest, but mostly, we seemed to be grateful for the tiny bit of warmth it provided, as it was already beginning to get dark, and with that, the temperature was dropping.
Tunick’s organizers then herded us into an open field where the picture was to be taken. There was a lot of shouting of orders. This, I realized was nothing compared to the first sight of Tunick with his bullhorn screaming at people to “Get in line!”, “Keep moving!” “Hurry up, we are losing the light!” Mind you, we are naked, and freezing, slogging through thick mud over somewhat rough terrain in the twilight - voluntarily, yes, but you’d think that under these conditions, the photographer might be just a bit more sensitive and kind. At one point after we were arranged in the formation, he wanted, he screamed at a man, “Sir!! Is that a watch I see on your wrist?” “Get out of the shot! You’re out!!” Some others had managed to gather too much fabric in the front of them, when Tunick wanted to clearly see through it. “I want to see your bodies!!”, he belted. “Is he for real?”, the spirit next to me muttered. As he barked through the bullhorn and took his shots, and despite how the elements had done their worst, I would say we had all been pretty good sports.
By the time we finished, it was nearly dark as we stumbled back to our clothes which were cold and damp from being outside in a paper bag. It was truly freezing by then and the rush to be covered in warmth created a logjam under the shed. My teeth were chattering while waiting to hear my number called, and I found myself wanting to ask the naked stranger next to me if I could please share his body heat. Barely able to see, and putting my clothes on mud- caked, shivering skin I began to get cranky. I am a bit too young to have attended Woodstock, but I suddenly had a sense of what some of the more miserable moments of that weekend might have been. Too bad I didn’t have any psychedelic drugs to alter my mood.
After we all once again covered up, there was a little cocktail party provided for us in the restaurant area where we began the day. There was an atmosphere of newfound intimacy with this group of strangers that was somewhat contagious. Even so, my only desire at that point was to try and find a cab, get myself home and into a hot shower.
The next day I happened to be talking to my cousin and I was relating to him the whole experience about the photos. “You mean these?” he said, sending me a link to YouTube where someone had already posted pictures of the shoot. It just so happened, that out of 150 people, there I was, front and center spirit in a close-up. So much for my “private experience”.
So how did being naked with all these strangers serve me? I reflected how this gathering became more than just a dare for me. Sometimes when we confront our discomfort—mental and physical— just like fear, we realize we create or project most of it, or at the very least, understand we are capable of more than we think. Aside from that, we often associate being naked with some kind of sexual activity or sexual attraction. We seem programmed—or more accurately—trained to view naked bodies with this in mind.
I think part of Tunick’s purpose in these “landscapes” is to recognize the basic nature of our bodies as similar to the beauty of mother nature. Aside from this connection, the feeling that I personally had during this experience was not only our shared physical discomfort—being wet and cold— but also our shared emotions in being nervous and vulnerable. In other words, our shared humanity. And of course vulnerability is the very thing we associate with nakedness regarding our bodies and our emotions.
We often see our bodies as flawed in so many ways, especially as we age, but like nature, our bodies are in fact, amazingly intelligent and we are all part of the gorgeous landscape of skin and flesh and bones, along with a myriad of fluctuating sensitivities. It’s not a bad idea to be reminded often of the intimacy of this connection and celebrate our nakedness in all forms. Daring to shed my clothes with one hundred and fifty strangers created such a reminder. I think next time I’d like it minus the mud and cold. And bullhorn.