The Inhibition Project. ~ Davis Tilly {nude}

Via elephant journal
on Feb 19, 2012
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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


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21 Responses to “The Inhibition Project. ~ Davis Tilly {nude}”

  1. Bring On The Blue says:

    As one of the participants in this grand experiment, I'd say Ashley has hit it spot on; both with the photos, and with this article. It was an unexpectedly enlightening experience. Everyone should go out and get covered in paint at some point in their lives. They might learn something about themselves that they never new lay hidden inside.

  2. Catspaw12 says:

    I was also a participant. it was awesome. I was surprised at how much the whole thing depended on the group, and how close I felt to my fellow participants when we were done. They'd been strangers an hour before. Suddenly we were all conspirators in the fun of the thing.

  3. Love this! It looks like you all had so much fun! It's great to see a focus on nudity that celebrates the body in just a fun uninhibited way. In the U.S. it seems like people always make nudity about sex when that isn't always the case.

  4. Nanci Alpert says:

    I was a participant as well. I loved this project! I left feeling less inhibited; for real. And, a major sense of freedom. One of my greatest life experiences!

  5. cit1 says:

    This is awesome! sign me up for your next experiment! 🙂

  6. Miranda says:

    I'm in for your next one! [email protected] That's awesome and beautiful!

  7. lindsay says:

    Beautiful experiment.

  8. Stacey says:

    I would love to be a part of your next experiment as well. Absolutely Incredible. [email protected]

  9. Greg says:

    It sounds like an incredible experience. I am definitely interested in participating in your 50’s group. [email protected]

  10. Jessica says:

    Truly inspiring, beautiful photos. What an awesome experiment. I would love to be apart of something like this in the future. Really wonderful work

  11. Annabel says:


    Really looking forward to see the 50+ groups rock out. I recon the pics will be brilliant!

  12. […] I will not describe myself as a prude. Others might. I have been harassed by my friends on more than one occasion for wearing long shorts known as “jams” to the beach. The only place I ever comfortably reveal my body is in a yoga studio. On the mat, there is no reason to cover myself. There I am physically, mentally and spiritually naked and unashamed. […]

  13. 50, 60, and 70 is now slated for the end of March… Be in touch if you'd like to participate – [email protected] . And thanks SO much for your interest in this project!! 🙂

  14. Hey Jessica – send me your email address and I'll put you on my list of folks to contact with project ideas: [email protected]. Thanks so much for your interest in the work!!

  15. Hi! Send me an email and I'll put you on a list for future projects! Thanks for your interest in the work. 🙂 [email protected] .

  16. 48-55 yr olds : Wednesday March 28th 7pm
    58-65 yr olds: Thursday March 29th 7pm
    68-75+ yr olds: Friday March 30th 7pm

  17. […] you can pause the class as many times as you need to for quick trips to the toilet. You lose your inhibitions as well—yoga classes can be at bit intimidating when your body is so different from what […]

  18. I read this article with high expectations but found it very disappointing. It seems like a poor exploration of inhibition to photograph a pack of beautiful people. Watching an exploration of the inhibitions of beautiful people is like listening to supermodels complain that they feel ugly.

    If you want a study of actual inhibition you should be photographing people who are not pretty. I'm a fat guy and I promise you that the lifetime of shame and social abuse we receive leads to inhibitions the people in these pictures can't even imagine.

    You're a talented photographer, to be sure, but if you wanted to to a photo study of inhibition then wow, did you ever pick the wrong subjects to put in front of your lens. I'd wager, though, that if you did a proper study of this with models who actually have real inhibitions your project would have been a failure, because my best guess is that you would have a heck of a time trying to get people with serious inhibitions to undress for you.

    People like me, people who are not beautiful, suffer lifetimes of emotional pain over it. We're unlikely to model for a project like that because we've all seen the ridicule that follows people like that "Star Wars Kid". He was just a kid who was a Star Wars Fan who made a movie he never expected to share with anyone, but because he was fat and clumsy he became the focus of worldwide ridicule. The emotional damage done to that kid was horrifying.

    So, yes, you put together a great portfolio of well-shot pictures of mostly-naked, paint-covered beautiful people. What you didn't do was explore inhibition in any meaningful way.

  19. Susan McGinnis says:

    Yeah – so you end the photo shoot at 40 somethings – as if that's old & the end of beautiful. So sad. You missed the point of the experiment.

  20. margie says:

    Guess none of them went to art school!

  21. Bree DeMoss says:

    I think it is very unfair to assume that "beautiful people" don't have inhibitions like the rest of us. There were a few participants who commented above, and it sounded to me like they all had life-changing / mind-expanding experiences at this photo shoot.

    Making snap judgments about people based solely on their appearance is wrong…..whatever that appearance may be. You shouldn't discriminate against "beautiful people" any more than you'd want them to discriminate against you.