OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Drive down a road in Old Orchard Beach past Renata O'Donnell's home, and you would never know a photography studio is tucked away in a small addition to the building. The modest space is filled with frilly costumes, stiletto heels, and chunky jewelry. It's where O'Donnell spends a majority of her time, watching artistic visions come to life through the lens of her camera.
O'Donnell is originally from Brazil, where she became a professional photographer 25 years ago, working in the fashion and modeling industries. She said her passion has always been photographing women because of their uniqueness.
"I just love showing them how beautiful they are and how I see them and how other people see them," O'Donnell said. "They don’t know that. They don’t feel that way."
When O'Donnell moved to Maine in the early 2000s, she said she had a hard time satisfying her niche passion. She said women in Maine typically didn't want to stand in front of the camera for a picture. Instead, they were more apt to bring in their children to be photographed or take a portrait as a family. O'Donnell did that work exclusively for a while but said she wasn't fulfilled by it.
"I felt like something was missing," O'Donnell said.
Then, one sleepless night in 2020, she had an idea: Start a project photographing Maine women in individual sessions to celebrate them during the month of March, which is Women's History Month. She decided she wanted to feature women from all walks of life with one simple goal.
"This project is to empower ordinary women around us, our neighbors, our friends," O'Donnell said.
Now, she's in her fourth year of doing this project, taking portraits of 31 different women and sharing one online every day of March. She also asks these women to fill out a questionnaire about their life, so she can write up a brief summary about who they are and what people might not register from the surface.
"What is behind the face and the smile?" O'Donnell said.
For O'Donnell's client Muetulamba "Gloria" Simao of Portland, there's a lot tucked away behind an outwardly bubbly personality. Simao grew up in Namibia before coming to the United States in 2019. She said she was bullied in high school in her home country, and those mean words sometimes return to her thoughts.
"Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and just think, 'You’re really ugly.' 'You’re not beautiful,'" Simao said. "I feel like those words come back to me a lot."
Simao has worked with O'Donnell a couple of times and said the sessions have really helped to instill an inner confidence.
"Engaging in yourself, loving yourself is the first step. Pictures are the first step of self-love," Simao said.
Another woman O'Donnell is featuring this month is Mary Allen Lindemann, owner of Coffee By Design in Portland. She said for her, having these pictures taken of herself in her workspace is empowering, especially since taking on the business as the sole owner recently.
"I feel this is a major turning point for me, personally, so to have a documented -- the timing is really perfect," Lindemann said.
Lindemann said she thinks the project is an important reminder that women need to come together to support one another.
"These are very different women, but I guarantee you there will be a similar thread between all of us in that we want equity," Lindemann said.
You can see O'Donnell's entire Women's History Month project of 2023 here.