Flint, MI—About a week before the grand opening of her new photography studio, Leni Williams looked content sitting in her new airy, white-walled space in downtown Flint, Mich., with a backdrop of soft pink peony petals behind her.

“Would you mind turning the music down, Dee?” she asked her husband and business partner, Deonta Williams, as he came to sit alongside her. “It might be distracting.”

Such attention to detail is second nature to Leni after a decade in photography. 

The comfort of her visitors comes first, she said, because when she started taking pictures, she wasn’t very comfortable with herself.

“I had like—I wouldn’t even say severe—but I mean, it was pretty bad body dysmorphia,” Leni said, referring to a mental health condition in which a person obsesses over perceived flaws in their appearance.

Leni wouldn’t wear shorts or short-sleeved shirts because of her struggles with body image, she explained, and it took her husband’s encouragement and photography to help her see her own beauty.

“He’s my number one fan,” Leni said, smiling as Deonta returned from adjusting the speaker. “He’s like, ‘You’re so pretty. You’re going to look great!’ So he would take pictures of me, and I was just like, ‘Oh, okay! I guess I look okay.’”

As Leni learned to love herself through the lens of Deonta’s camera, she wanted to bring that same experience to other women through her own lens. So she launched a social media campaign called #BreakingBeautyStandards in 2017.

The campaign ended up garnering national attention for its body-positive messaging.

“It just kind of made this community for me,” Leni said, and soon she began getting thank you messages from women inspired by the campaign and calls to do boudoir photo shoots and wedding photography.

A selection of photos by photographer Leni Williams. (Courtesy Leni Kei Photography)

Having gained a following and growing clientele, the Williamses said they finally began looking for studio space in 2020—though they’d been thinking about it for a year or two prior.

“We didn’t know who to call,” Leni said of the studio rental process in Flint. “So we just started walking in buildings like, ‘Hey, do you have anything available?’”

The pair said they initially received a lot of no’s before getting into the Paterson Building, which was offered at reduced rental rate under the building’s new owner, Flintstone Investment Group Corp.

However, Deonta estimated Leni Kei Photography was only able to operate in Paterson for about eight months—“September to March,” he said—before they got word the building was condemned in early April 2022.

“We were on vacation when we got the news,” Deonta said, adding that the pair found out because another tenant had texted them.

“He was like, ‘I just don’t want you guys to come home to any bullshit,” Leni said. “He said, ‘It’s condemned. They’re asking everyone to leave.’”

The Williamses said they were stunned but hopeful it was just a misunderstanding. 

When they got home to ask Flintstone Investment Group’s representative, they said they were told the building wasn’t condemned despite the news articles and evidence to the contrary.

The citation was affixed to the historic Paterson Building’s front door on April 22, 2022, citing owner Flintstone Investment Group Corp. for occupying a condemned structure. (Kate Stockrahm | Flint Beat)

“She was like, ‘You guys are totally good to go in there. Shame on anyone who said that you aren’t,’” Leni said of their conversation with Flintstone Investment Group’s representative.

Ultimately, the pair said they spent a couple of months “in limbo” trying to figure out if they were or were not allowed to operate.

The Williamses said they were told to expect further information on dates that then came and went, and in the meantime, they had to cancel photoshoots and refund other photographers who had rented their space months in advance.

“So we just got to the point we were like, ‘We’ve got to find something else,’” Deonta said. 

The pair decided they wanted to stay in downtown Flint, and Deonta emailed Uptown Reinvestment Corporation about a newly vacant boutique location at 620 S. Saginaw St.—just a block from the Paterson Building.

“It was about a month from the moment they said ‘yes’ to us moving in,” Leni said.

“We signed our lease literally July 1,” Deonta added, gesturing proudly to a room full of pre-staged sets featuring an array of backdrops, a plush green velvet couch, plants, a canopy bed, mirrors, and trendy neon lighting.

Props and decorations are shown in Leni Williams’ new photography studio for her business Leni Kei Photography on Saginaw Street in Downtown Flint, Mich., on Thursday, July 14, 2022. Williams moved all her props from her previous studio in the Paterson Building. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Despite the circumstances surrounding their move, the two photographers said they are truly happy with their new location.

“If I had in my mind what I would ideally want: this is what it would be,” Leni said, a smile spread wide across her face. “It’s probably almost triple the size, has the natural light that photographers all want… and the floors and the high ceilings… it’s just everything for me.”

Flintstone Investment Group Corp has not returned repeated requests for comment since the Paterson Building was condemned in April. The investment group also did not answer further requests to respond to tenants’ claims to Flint Beat and posts on social media, where two other tenants recently announced temporary closures.

While the Williamses did not want to comment further on their Paterson Building experience, they did wish their former fellow tenants well in navigating the next best steps for their businesses and remained grateful for their own fortunate outcome.

“It worked out so well for us,” Leni said. 

“And we want to empower other entrepreneurs in the downtown area to be able to come in and use [our] space,” Deonta added.

Leni Kei Photography officially opened on Saturday, July 23, 2022, in its new location at 620 S. Saginaw Street in downtown Flint. More information and booking details can be found on the studio’s website.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....

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