Three inches from one of the most notorious dictators in history, the photographer Platon focused tightly on the black eyes glaring at him through his lens. “There was nothing in them,” he said. “It’s like his soul had been scooped out of his head and taken away.”
The result, a dark and menacing portrait of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, appeared on the cover of TIME International on newsstands last week. Platon captured the cold stare of the dictator in 2009 during the U.N. General Assembly while shooting a portfolio of world leaders for the New Yorker magazine.
Gaddafi, surrounded by a sea of female bodyguards, approached Platon, who had a small studio set up next to the stage. President Obama had just begun his speech and oddly, Platon said, this was when Gaddafi wanted to be photographed.
“It was scary,” Platon says. “He’s walking slowly towards me, like some kind of King. It was hellraising.”
Platon motioned towards the chair and Gaddafi stopped, considered it for a moment, and then nonchalantly sat down. “Everything was in slow motion, you could hear a bloody pin drop,” says Platon. “I’m whispering to him, ‘chin up,’ guiding him with my fingers. I’m so close it’s ridiculous.
“He was wearing this beautiful chocolate robe and his crazy wild hair is tamed by this sort of black pork pie hat,” Platon said. “And his eyes are just black slits, really hard to read anything. He’s either the smartest guy in the room or he’s the craziest guy in the room. It’s intimidating.”
Platon, who has photographed his share of daunting subjects that include Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Gaddafi was different. “He was vacant. There was no emotion, there was no spirit. It was void of something. When you come face to face with that it’s overwhelming, and that’s what I was trying to get in the picture.”
After the shoot, Platon said, “He put his hand on his heart to say thank you, and I did the same. And then, elegantly, he walked away.”
Platon then caught a glimpse of Gaddafi’s speech. “It was written in red crayon, in giant letters, like a six-year-old kid would write it. And it was written on about twenty pieces of tatty paper torn out of a book, in Arabic. It felt like notes of a madman.”
Patrick Witty is TIME’s International Photo Editor.