Two photos released Sunday show a smiling Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., with much shorter and darker hair and few signs of the injuries she suffered when a bullet pierced her skull in January.
The images, the clearest yet of the lawmaker who was targeted in a deadly Arizona shooting rampage, were taken on May 17 by a professional photographer at her Houston rehabilitation facility.
But the images left unanswered many questions about her cognitive abilities and when — or even if — she will be able to resume her job in Congress.
"The image doesn't tell us the inner mental state or the brain itself, how it's functioning," said Jordan Grafman, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Research Laboratory at the Kessler Foundation Research Center in West Orange, N.J., explaining that many brain-injury patients look good within months of being hurt. Grafman has not treated Giffords.
In one of the images, Giffords smiles broadly and looks straight at the camera like a high-school student posing for a yearbook. In another, more candid shot, she is grinning alongside her mother.
The photos were released on Giffords' Facebook page and were not altered or edited, according to her staff.
They "show Gabby has traveled a remarkable distance since Jan. 8," the day a gunman killed six people, shot Giffords in the head and wounded 13 others during a meet-and-greet with constituents in Tucson, Ariz., said spokesman C.J. Karamargin.
Since the attack, Giffords' aides and family have closely guarded the congresswoman's appearance and news of her recovery, which has mainly been released by doctors who have performed surgeries to heal brain swelling and other damage caused by her gunshot wound.
Set to be released as soon as this month from her rehabilitation center, she hoped to dampen paparazzi interest in her condition and appearance, Karamargin said.
In April, rumors surfaced that a $200,000 bounty was out for photos of Giffords in recovery.
Her recovery has been lauded by her staff and doctors at the Houston medical facility where she has undergone treatment.
Giffords was "smiling and laughing," said photographer P.K. Weiss, a former photojournalist asked by the lawmaker to take the photos. "She seemed to enjoy the experience," Weiss added.
But questions still loom over her cognitive abilities, speech and political future.
The shooting occurred days after Giffords was sworn into her third term in Congress. She has worked in therapy to recover her strength, ability to speak and walk.
"We know this is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint, but her release into outpatient care will be another sign of progress," Karamargin said.
He added that Giffords was injured while on the job and has no plans to leave her position before her term expires in January 2013.
Gifford friend Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that the two lawmakers spoke last week and had a "wonderful conversation," with Giffords speaking in full sentences.
Last week, her staff sang Happy Birthday to the congresswoman on a conference call. She responded, "That's great. Thank you," according to Karamargin.
The photos were taken one day after Giffords traveled to Cape Canaveral to see her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, launch into space on the shuttle Endeavour.
The photos released Sunday show some signs of the bullet that pierced through the left side of her brain. One eye appears smaller than the other, her eyebrows are slightly offset, and there is a slight depression near her left eye.
Immediately after she was shot, a portion of Giffords' skull was removed to ease pressure on her brain from swelling. In May, a plastic replacement for that portion of her skull was put back into place.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.