In a world where Instagram is the new Canon, social media matters. So two years ago, when a group of Tel Aviv University students working with the grassroots Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs decided to create a new sort of pro-Israel outreach program, they honed in on the idea of blogging and Instagram and decided to let Israel’s own natural beauty the talking.

With an emphasis on the digital and downloadable, OnceInaLifetimeHD was born. The program, which brings highly active users on the photo-sharing site Instagram to Israel for a week and allows them to snap away their experiences, bets on the fact that once they upload their gorgeous images of Israel and share them with the virtual world, the sheer beauty of the country – and the surprising diversity, richness and warmth that marks Israel’s topography – will compel users unfamiliar with the country to take a second look.

The snap-happy group was back this year, this time comprised of nine Instagram photographers between the ages of 28 and 42. They hailed from seven different countries, including Turkey and Austria, and each boasted between 150,000 and 500,000 followers of their online photo feed.

Hamsas for display. (photo credit: StandWithUs)

Hamsas for display. (photo credit: @missanmo)

The shutterbugs were treated to an all-expenses paid tour of Israel, courtesy of funds raised by StandWithUs, and were encouraged to have their cameras out at every step along the way. The images they collected, which ranged from the standard (sunrise over the Mediterranean, camels in the Negev) to the surprising (graffiti in South Tel Aviv, Christmas decorations in Jerusalem), were uploaded en masse to photo-sharing sites and earned thousands of “likes” per pic.

And for StandWithUs, in a world where ignorance about Israel is widespread and game-changing conversations are happening more and more online, those little “likes” can go a long way.

What makes this advocacy trip different from all over trips is that its participants often have zero knowledge or exposure to Israel before they arrive. They come to the country with an innocence about them, an eagerness to photograph and explore but no basic knowledge of Israel’s complexity beyond what they’ve been exposed to on the nightly news.

Kyle Steed, a 31-year-old artist from Texas with 164,000 followers on Instragram, said after leaving Israel that was surprised him most was “how beautiful the people are and how much good food we ate. And how modern everything was. Not that I thought it was all ancient civilization with donkeys and stuff, but still, it was much more modern than I expected.”

Steed said that after his week here, he was aching to return.

Saying hello to a camel. (photo credit: StandWithUs)

Saying hello to a camel. (photo credit: @anasbarros)

“My faith, by far, [is my connection to Israel],” he said. “But now I want to go back to experience more of the people and the food and the culture. Israel is truly a magical place.”

Ana Barros, a 28-year-old architect-by-day from Portugal who now lives in Vienna, had followed OnceInALifetimeHD’s maiden trip on Instagram last year and was excited to be chosen this year. She has 260,000 followers on the site and said that before she arrived she knew little about Israel other than its conflict with the Palestinians.

“Tel Aviv really surprised me – so modern and beautiful,” she said. “I was really impressed with the architecture and the way people dress and look … but the most magical was the Dead Sea, the most beautiful place I have ever been.”

The trip wasn’t without its risks for the participants. Many of them saw their photos met with hateful comments. Snaps of the region’s more sensitive sites, including Jerusalem and the snaking separation barrier, received the most negative feedback. A few photographers admitted that they lost followers.

A little music at sunset.

A little music at sunset. (photo credit: @wisslaren)

Fedja Salihbasic, a 32-year-old professional shutterbug from Denmark, admitted that a few of his 344,000 Instagram followers stopped following him when he began posting images from the trip, but said that in their place he formed several real-world relationships.

“Before I came to Israel, I had no connection to the place,” he said. “Now I made friends that will always connect me to Israel.”

He knew very little about the region before take-off, he said, and spent a few weeks prior to departure watching documentaries about the conflict to gain some background. The trip, he said, was executed perfectly. “The food was amazing,” he said. “The bus driver was awesome… everything was perfect!”

Among the nine photographers on the trip were Mehmet Kirali and Ciler Giceci, a Turkish couple in their 40s who together have more than 1 million Instagram followers.

Fruits and veggies in the market.

Fruits and veggies in the market. (photo credit: @olesya_gribova)

Answering a post-trip survey together in hesitant English, they said that despite simmering tensions between Israel and Turkey, they came on the trip with open minds and wanted only to discover as much as they could of Israel, a nation they now refer to as “amazing.”

As for their followers, many of whom are Arab Muslims, the duo said “they liked the pictures, they didn’t like us being there.”  One commenter on their photo feed wrote, “I’m Arabic but I love your pictures, and I’m sorry about the politics between the two countries.”

Christopher Collin, a 29-year-old Swedish photographer, said he was glad to come on the trip because his photos could serve as a window into a world his followers had never been exposed to.

“People in general like to travel through Instagram,” he said. “They like to see places they wouldn’t normally go. My guess is that people enjoyed seeing my view of a country that not so many people would visit normally, and hopefully I’ve inspired at least a few to come and visit.”