On January 20, 2021, photographer and National Geographic explorer Stephen Wilkes found himself almost exactly where he had been eight years earlier for President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration: suspended 40 feet in the air on the National Mall.

At 5:30 a.m. on this latest inauguration day, Wilkes and his assistant Lenny Christopher assumed their positions in a shaky scissor lift as 35 mile-per-hour winds whipped them with freezing rain. Wilkes, knowing that his marathon session had only just begun, locked his camera in place and took a picture.

When Wilkes finally climbed down 15 hours later, he had taken more than 1,500 photographs spanning the day from dawn until nightfall. Each one reveals a moment that captivated Wilkes.

“It literally is almost like a meditation when I work,” Wilkes says. “The winds can be blowing and howling, but when it comes to me being present, I’m always looking. I’m always watching the way the clouds are moving. I’m watching the way the light is moving. I’m seeing the way people are walking … I’m watching all these things.”

For the past 12 years, Wilkes has perfected the art of taking the same picture over and over again – except no two images are ever the same.

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