February 19, 2012

The Inhibition Project. ~ Davis Tilly {nude}

Photo: Davis Tilly

In what will be the most uninhibited year of the decade –the year of the dragon, the year to let go– it seems fitting to explore the ways people hold themselves back.

To find out, I gathered strangers in different age groups –4 year olds to 40 year olds– asked them to wear nothing but tighty-whities, and threw them together in a room with a bucket of white paint.

When and where do our inhibitions come from?

By photographing the interactions between these people I hoped to see how and where we hold back, what empowers us to let go, and whether these things change as we age.

Photo: Davis Tilly

People entered the studio nervous. “I was so nervous before the shoot I pooped twice.” And one participant –with tears in her eyes– said, “It’s hard for me to let go.” The before shots in each age groups’ gallery show tight smiles, forced laughter, and self conscious gestures. A third participant (a guy) said, “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t even take his shirt off at the swimming pool, so this is really hard for me.” 

Photo: Davis Tilly

Each group found its own way to cope with the vulnerability: the 4 year olds, imagination; the 20 year olds, individuality; the 30 year olds, the Tribe; and the 40 year olds, coupling. What I saw was that the participants craved authentic interactions with each other and simply to touch.

They wanted an excuse to let their guard down in a way that they don’t in their everyday lives.

The paint and underwear; the project itself; even I, the photographer, were an excuse to do that.

There were significant differences between the age groups.

4 year olds

The 4 year olds gave themselves wholly to the experience: to the space, to each other and to their imaginations. They barely paid any attention to me, standing just outside the white back drop beyond their stage, and slipped into worlds that they created within themselves and with each other.


Photo: Davis Tilly

The people in their 20s held back the most. They were aware of me, and unsure of each other, but wanted to be sure of themselves. They were individualists. Much of their energy went towards looking outside of themselves and seemed unsure of how far they could push it.

Photo: Davis Tilly

Don’t we all remember that age? Social rules exist and you don’t realize that if they’re broken, you won’t die. They didn’t ask to bring alcohol and as far as I could tell, showed up stone cold sober.


The 30 year olds were for the tribe. The girls led the charge on group activities, stunts, and ideas for expression. This group was most focused on each other and ignored the background and floor. They really seemed to enjoy just playing.

They asked to bring alcohol. Wine was involved. And the shoot was like a rolling improv session: everything was cool because if someone in the group initiated an idea, the tribe adjusted to accept their expression and make it ok. One girl wanted to be painted completely white so the tribe made her a goddess.


Photo: Davis Tilly

The subjects in their 40s threw all rules to the wind. I’m 34 years old myself, so I have a more tenuous explanation of their behavior.

They decided on their own boundaries and rules and were most focused on connecting with each other. They did more coupling than the other groups, which were breaking into pairs.

There were two married couples in the group, two without their spouses, and one recently divorced. They had had their kids if they were going to, and the sense was that of having nothing to lose.

They had navigated rules and social norms through their lives and they were now at the point of deciding what served them. It came as a surprise to me that they were the ones most interested in sexuality and connection.

I asked the participants how they felt after the shoot:

Photo: Davis Tilly

“I figured it would just be a fun night of painting, but afterward I spent about an hour looking back on it, and realized I was incredibly relaxed and upbeat, almost as if I’d just spent the last hour doing yoga.”

“I thought I was going to feel stupid, I mean really, who did I think I was modeling in my undies?! I felt empowered.”

“At the end of the shoot I felt great. I felt strong and satisfied. I felt like I had taken part in something really thought provoking and more profound than I expected. I couldn’t sleep that night, I was so wound up and excited about the whole thing, free; I loved it. I felt different and pensive and it stuck with me for a few days.”

Photo: Davis Tilly

The origin of this project came from looking at my own inhibitions and conservative southern upbringing…I often catch myself holding back when I really want to let go. I struggle with anxiety –physical and social– and I’ve worked hard to remove the impediments in the way of being able to think and act freely and expressively.

I had assumptions before shooting that turned out to be wrong. I thought the 20s would be the least inhibited, off the wall, and most sexually charged.

But this project seems to show the opposite; that we learn to let go and to love ourselves as we get older.

The next phase of the Inhibition project will be focused on people in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Please be in touch if you’re interested in exploring your own inhibitions… in your tighty-whities.

Photo: Davis Tilly

Click here to see complete online gallery. 

How about you? What are your inhibitions? I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment. It could be the first step to letting go. 

[Photos: © Davis Tilly]


Editor: Andrea B.


I’m after the human experience: authentic, organic, fresh. And a connection with my subject, an energy exchange. As a photographer I have permission to look and push for intimate honest moments- immediacy, vulnerability, sensuality, freedom, letting go… I’m willing to jump into emotional areas that require presence, thoughtfulness, and self-awareness, creating imagery about soulful moments and textured nuanced expression. I’m based in Boulder. Clients include Sunset Magazine, the Kitchen Restaurants, Walden Hyde Agency, and the City and County of Boulder. You can find me at www.davistilly.com.

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