You’ve seen this picture before…but since this week’s Photo Friday topic is Best of 2004, I thought I’d revisit one of my favorite reflective photos. In typically indecisive fashion, I’m not sure if this is my “best” photo of 2004…but it’s one of those fortuitous accidents that turned out to be the perfect visual accompaniment for the post in which it originally occurred.

Over the past year, I’ve posted many submissions to the Mirror Project and devoted an entire entry to the Zen of reflective photography. (To view my Mirror Project submissions, click here.) Reflective photography, like blogging, might seem to be the pinnacle of narcissism…but it appeals to me because of the particularly nettlesome nature of the challenge. Artists have regularly painted self-portraits as a way of practicing the art of expression, and to a certain degree essayists are always writing about themselves. Reflective photography presents particular challenges of light and angle: what the camera sees from its perspective isn’t necessarily what you see from yours, and your expression of concentration isn’t necessarily the one you flash when a friend exclaims “Say cheese!” In a word, even the most composed reflective photos always seem more candid than a portrait taken by someone else: there’s something about the duality of standing (miraculously) on both sides of the camera lens that brings out a side of oneself that seems particular true.

Initially, I began taking (and posting) reflective pictures as a therapeutic gesture. As an awkward, funny-looking kid, I shunned any reminder of what I looked like: I hated mirrors almost as much as I hated having my picture taken. As a college undergraduate, I dressed in the most slovenly, slouchiest clothing I could find, wearing baggy second-hand t-shirts over which I draped, open-buttoned, my father’s cast-off workshirts. Once I overheard my then-boyfriend talking to his best friend, who remarked he couldn’t tell whether I was fat or thin, curvy or flat, because of the baggy clothing I wore. “Oh, she has curves under there somewhere,” my then-boyfriend reassured. “They’re just hiding.”

She’s just hiding, he should have said, for that was my modus operandi in those days. Possessed of an outgoing personality, I nevertheless couldn’t stand people looking at me; hamming it up was how I simultaneously attracted attention while shunning people’s glances. The super-hyper persona I presented at parties and informal get-togethers made everyone else laugh…and it hid who I really was. Yes, part of me is boisterous and extroverted…but my grinning and mugging hid the other side, the part of me that prefers quiet and solitude, the part of me that would rather spend the evening with a good book and a good friend, the comforts of a party of two rather than the adulation of the gathered masses.

Taking (and posting) reflective photos has become one way that I’ve come out of hiding. One of the benefits of maturity (I think) is the luxury of becoming less obsessed with self-image. These days, I care less and less about how I look, how I act, or how others perceive me: I’m here, I’m [fill-in-the-blank], get used to it. Fat or thin, curvy or flat, ugly or pretty…this is who I am and how I look. By posting various and sundry images of myself–some flattering, some not–I’m aiming for something that is the exact opposite of narcissism. Whereas a narcissist worries about looking good, I’m more interested in looking real: here I stand, and here’s how I look. Reflective photography captures a moment as much as a visage, a snapshot of a particular person in a particular instant, freeze-framed.

When I was a high school senior, my school librarian tape-recorded a TV appearance of my high school quiz team and presented me with a copy. Knowing my reluctance to see myself in pictures much less video, he exhorted me to keep the tape for later: “Someday when you’re older,” Mr. Hustey chided, “you’ll want to see what you looked like when you were eighteen.” I’ve never gone back and watched that old video, but I finally know what Mr. Hustey meant. Whether or not my eighteen-year-old body matched my idea of what I wanted it to look like, that video captured a slice of reality, unadorned.

It is this element of reality that drives me to post a series of reflective images for my “Best of 2004” post. New Year’s is a time when many of us pause to contemplate where we’ve been and where we’re headed. This past year has been particularly noteworthy for me: among other milestones, I finished a decade-long slog toward my doctorate, I ended a long-languishing marriage, and I blogged (and photographed) nearly every step of the way. I’ve never been one to make New Year’s Resolutions because I’ve seen all-too-often how such good intentions end in the vicious circle of underachievement: we reach for the stars and end up accomplishing next-to-nothing. This past year, though, I broke out of several vicious cycles of my own, establishing an almost-daily writing habit, slaying some of my inner demons about my writing/photography/scholarship being “good enough,” and finding the strength and courage to end a relationship that had been personally unhealthy for too long. At the threshold of 2005–and less than a week before turning 36–I’m happy about where I stand and who I am. These days, I can look myself (or any camera) in the eye and say, “It’s all good.”

At the threshold of a new year, you see, I’m no longer feeling separated, my head in one place and my heart in another. These days I’m whole and entire, and things are looking up. These days when I scan the shelves of the Harvard Coop self-help section in my leather jacket and faux-fur hat, I don’t see anything I need.