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Worth a Thousand Words: 20 Months of Madison

See how the cityscape of Madison has changed throughout the pandemic through the lens of photographer Samuel Li ’18

Sam Li '18 in the foreground of a great Capitol view.

No one sees Madison quite like Samuel Li ’18.Whether it’s with boots on the ground or drones in the sky, Li’s photography and cinematography showcase the city in a never-before-seen way. But like many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic put a sharp pivot in his career plans. Li curated an exclusive gallery that reflects on how both he and the city of Madison moved through the pandemic.

I bought my first camera my sophomore year of college and, within a few months, what started as a hobby quickly became a lucrative side hustle. However, when I graduated from UW–Madison in 2018, I knew I wouldn’t be able to support myself off of my freelance work alone, so I accepted a project management position at a tech company in Madison. I quit in October 2019 with high hopes, fully expecting to be shooting for clients all over the world and leaving Madison behind. Then the pandemic hit. Almost every client canceled their shoots, and the calendar that I had spent months filling up was suddenly empty. It was March 2020, and I knew I had to pivot, so I picked up my camera and hit the streets, showcasing the version of Wisconsin that I saw, accumulating 50,000-plus followers across my social media platforms in the span of a year and a half. Now in the final months of 2021, I find myself still in Madison, incredibly happy to be here, and excited to share what I captured.

April 5, 2020
The Hilton next to the Monona Terrace would light up their empty rooms in the shape of a heart every night during the beginning of the pandemic. I waited for a calm night and headed across Lake Monona to capture it.
April 24, 2020
After Governor Evers ’73, MS’76, PhD’86 enacted his “Safer at Home'' restrictions, protestors organized a “Freedom Rally.” I lived only blocks away from the capitol and saw the line of honking cars driving toward the square, so I went to see it for myself
April 24, 2020
The only person I saw that day with a sign in direct opposition to the protest. I sat across the street and watched him for a while as he interacted with the protestors.
Early May 2020
In the days following the protest, the streets became quiet again. I remember roaming around downtown Madison and sometimes being the only person out and about.
May 30, 2020
Suddenly the streets were full of people, police, and tear gas. After the murder of George Floyd, protests erupted in cities across the world, including my own. I had never seen anything like this in my lifetime.
June 9, 2020
I saw through social media that on the night of June 8, protestors had painted “Defund Police” on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The following morning, I went out with my drone and captured this photo.
July 26, 2020
It was the day after my birthday, and I remember walking out of my house and seeing this rainbow. I literally sprinted toward the capitol to capture this before it faded away. At this point, I was shooting almost every sunset because, simply put, I had nothing else to do.
October 30, 2020
A pilot and fellow UW alum reached out randomly on Instagram, asking if I wanted to go up in a plane to take photos. How could I say no? I ended up getting some of the most unique photos of Madison that I’ve ever captured in my life.
Winter 2020
In the midst of winter, days were starting to get pretty monotonous, and it got harder to motivate myself to keep going out for sunrises and sunsets. One night as I was getting ready for bed, I saw it was going to snow early in the morning, so I set my alarm. At 4 a.m., a friend and I meandered around the capitol, admiring the city lights amongst the snow.
Fall 2021
When I wasn’t actively shooting, I would start digging through old photos, reminiscing over how Madison used to be. I missed game days, pitchers at the Terrace, and concerts.
June 2, 2021
After nearly a year, the first mask mandate in Dane County ended and life seemed almost back to normal. I couldn’t believe it. I started formulating a plan in my head to showcase this city through a video. After all the time we had spent holed up in our homes, it was time to celebrate.

July 6, 2021
Madison — Best City Ever.
I know Madison may not be the best city ever to everyone, but I love this city. After capturing Madison throughout the height of the pandemic, I wanted to do something big. After meeting Ian Tunney ’20, another UW alum, we shot this passion project in just a couple of weeks and released it to the world.

Everyone has been affected by the pandemic in some way. It forced me to give up on some goals and to discover others. For me, it gave time to appreciate the city around me. It’s been fascinating to see how Madison has changed since March of 2020, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

This story originally appeared in the December 2021 issue of Badger Vibes. Learn more about this monthly email newsletter from WAA, and sign up for the mailing list.

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