I am writing this after getting a swathe of texts from friends and family who have been watching the Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez on Netflix and saw the image in the second episode of me on set with Aaron. My first reaction was a bit of anger as I never licensed any images from that shoot (call me, Netflix), but as that passed it eventually got me thinking about the day on set I spent with Aaron.

Diving into the mind of another man is enough to make one lose his own. My photoshoot of Aaron Hernandez is one that brought me joy and great pain, leaving me to question what lies behind the eyes of those that stand before my camera. The many years of photographing celebrities have led to great experiences and friendships, but this one photoshoot made me question my own mental depth and acuity to those that I work so hard to learn in brevity only to exist until the last shutter closes.

The photoshoot of Aaron took place on the final day of a weeklong campaign that I was shooting for a sports client. We had professional athletes in the studio all day from the NBA, MLB and NFL. For me I wanted nothing more than to keep up the quality of the lighting on set through the final athlete, wrap and then take my wife to Hawaii, for the next day was Valentine’s Day. It had been a long production, through pre-pro meetings, lighting days, scouting and client dinners, mentally I was exhausted and internally begging for a relief of the pressure that I enjoy so much.

When Aaron Hernandez first entered the studio, I was wearing the jersey and shoulder pads of Clay Matthews (the athlete that preceded Aaron), a Chicago Cubs batting helmet and drinking a Stella Artois. Perhaps understanding the light-heartedness that I carry on set, he immediately smiled and began laughing. I introduced myself, shook his hand and we started talking pleasantries… how’s the weather, what’s your new house like, how has your day been? The final question and answer haunt me to this day….

How has your day been?

Good (or some iteration of that was Aaron’s response), along with a soft childlike smile.

If only I had known that hours earlier he had shot a man in the head.

I sit here, years later, typing this and I still have to pause for a moment for my mind to digest the gravity of the situation. Having gone through mental health struggles the idea of not knowing the mind behind one’s eyes exists, but the level to which Aaron could keep it hidden was frightening. Upon hearing the news, those on my crew that day were in shock and disbelief that such a sweet kid could have done such a thing, but as time went on and details became clearer, we accepted it despite the ensuing confusion.

In an odd way it left me with a dilemma, how do I describe Aaron Hernandez? I can only describe him with lights and my camera, for the truth that existed within him will never be played out on set. As a portrait photographer we are challenged with exposing the true nature of the person that stands in front of the camera, be it angry, shy, calm or intense. However, photographing Aaron Hernandez has taught me so much about my approach and what I thought existed within the frame lines.

Often times photographers are celebrated for what reaction or expression they drew out of their subjects (think of Karsh’s image of Winston Churchill). It is almost this romantic notion that the photographer is some sort of snake charmer and the subject is a willing and controlled entity that is only part of an act that ends in a great image. Unfortunately, I feel this approach sells the celebrity or model short, for the collaborative effort of everyone on set is what results in the success of a photoshoot.

What Aaron Hernandez taught me is that all the lights in the world cannot illuminate the darkness that lives within his mind. While he and I worked together very well to get the images that the client wanted, we were merely playing the role that was asked in a dance that benefits the choreographer more than the dancer. It is a part of this career where form and light matter more than discovery, where we are not trying to learn anything about the athlete, but rather speak through them for the client’s cause.

On set, if I feel like the shoot has gone well and the images are in the bag, I will sometimes offer the option to shoot a few frames for fun. Aaron was game, he had seen an image in my portfolio of a football player holding a ball in a profile stance and wanted to have one like it of himself. We drew the lights and smoke machine and created this image of him in a calm, subtle almost stoic stance. He was excited about how the pose showed off his tattoos, which seemed to mean a lot to him. I knew that crossing an action light set into an impromptu portrait session wouldn’t be as dynamic a shot as I wanted, but it when I got home and looked through the files, it wasn’t the lighting that disturbed me, but his eyes.

The images we created on set that day were intense with expression and focus, the portrait that he wanted to do was absent of this. It was absent of emotion, of life almost as if the personality of the young kid with the smiles and laughs had left and what remained was cold. Perhaps this was a result of him being tired, or direction being different.  Part of me wonders what he was thinking about as the huge light source in front of him popped each time at full power, probably blinding him, as I could barely see after setting up the softboxes. We will never know.

Aaron Hernandez

Before breaking down set, Aaron asked me about one more shot. I pitched to him crazy action scenarios (after all it is the style of set we had that day), but what he wanted was one shot, a straight to camera portrait… without his helmet on. This was the last frame I shot that day, and the last shot of him before the world learned of his dark secret. I have never shown this image as I had chosen not to talk about the situation for many years. With the recent release of the Netflix documentary about Aaron, I have found myself watching and wondering what could have been, but more than anything hoping that his tragic fall from grace could save someone in his shoes.