Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
9 months ago

The Obama selfie: Harmless or tasteless?

Updated 11:06 a.m. ET, 12/11/2013

(CNN) - Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime event where dozens of world leaders join thousands of South Africans in a massive stadium, all to honor the anti-apartheid icon.

Instead, it turned into a media sensation...about a selfie.

SAFRICA-MANDELA-MEMORIAL

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Halfway through the ceremony, President Barack Obama could be seen helping Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt as the two squeezed in with British Prime Minister David Cameron to take a smiling photo of themselves with a camera-phone

Sitting next to them was first lady Michelle Obama, who was clearly not taking part in the photo-op.

AFP Photographer Roberto Schmidt, from about 150 meters away, caught the moment. And as soon his photo went public, it went viral.

Twitter and Facebook feeds lit up with the photo. News outlets quickly blasted it out online and on television. It all sparked a surging debate: Was the selfie a cute moment, or a tasteless act?

The reaction

"Did the President really take a selfie at a funeral? It appears the First Lady did not approve," Republican strategist and conservative firebrand Erick Erickson tweeted early Tuesday.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spent a portion of show hammering the President for taking part in the selfie and shaking Cuban President Raul Castro's hand at the same event. Obama, Limbaugh argued, was trying to make the memorial service all about himself.

"He doesn't care, folks," Limbaugh said. "This is his stage. I mean, this whole week is about Barack Obama. You understand, that's really what this all means. That's what this soap opera script is. It's not the death of Mandela anymore. This is about Barack Obama assuming Mandela's place as a great whatever on the world stage."

Some tabloids in Britain, Denmark and the U.S. were afire with speculation, as more photos came out and showed the three world leaders playfully interacting, with the first lady still sitting idly by.

"UK papers making hay with Obama selfie & FLOTUS's face. Daily Mail calls PM Helle Thorning-Schmitt "the flirty Dane," Jon Williams tweeted.

Karl Erik Stougaard, online managing editor at the Danish newspaper Politiken, told BBC on Wednesday that the Danish press consider the now-famous selfie "humorous" and a "very fun story."

"I don't see anyone complaining or criticizing the Danish prime minister for taking a selfie at the memorial,' he said, joking that the Danish don't have their own word for "selfie" and stole the English version.

In fact the word "selfie" didn't become a household name until just the last couple of years, as camera phones–combined with photo sharing sites like Instagram–made it easier to instantly spread the photos far and wide.

This year the phenomenon also became a fun pastime for celebrities, who are more used to being photographed from a distance than an arms-length away. Selfies by people like Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Beyoncé– even the Pope - further amplified the selfie movement.

Nearly a year ago Obama's own daughters, Sasha and Malia, stole the show at their father's inauguration parade when they were seen taking selfies. The First Lady herself snapped a photo of her and the family dog at the White House.

And in August of this year, Oxford Dictionaries cemented the word in the English language, giving it a spot in the dictionary after finding that usage of the term had increased by 17,000% within the previous year.

'Simply acting like human beings'

Schmidt, the AFP photographer, said he was flummoxed at the reaction to the selfie and found nothing distasteful about posing for a self-photo at this particular memorial service.

"All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader," Schmidt wrote in a blog post. "It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn't see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."

Responding to interpretations that Michelle Obama was peeved at her husband for lightheartedly engaging with his European counterparts–even perhaps flirting with the Danish prime minister–Schmidt cautioned that "photos can lie."

"In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included," he continued. "Her stern look was captured by chance."

In what's become the year of the selfie, Schmidt also questioned the new social media whirlwind in which photos that show such levity become the center of heated debate.

"At the time, I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you," he said. "For me, the behaviour of these leaders in snapping a selfie seems perfectly natural. I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place."


Filed under: Nelson Mandela • President Obama • South Africa
soundoff (1,374 Responses)
  1. Lib Labitis

    When you're as self-consumed as Obama, EVERYTHING is about you ...

    December 11, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  2. ontheisland

    Who cares? commenting on this is so trivial; Do no one have anything really important to do or discuss? Praise the Lord for waking you up this morning; someone didn't.

    December 11, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  3. BB

    just another Mountain out of a molehill from the simple minds.

    December 11, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  4. ME

    It captures the solemnity of the moment very well.

    December 11, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  5. Bookldy209

    Perhaps a slight faux but I can't help but feel Mr. Mandela would be pleased to see the joy in the room. Do we not remember he was about rising up together versus putting each other down?

    December 11, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  6. Martin

    It captures the solemnity of the moment very well.

    December 11, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  7. steve

    This is a non-story. As a Republican who doesn't agree with Obama on 90%b of the issues, this is not a story. Let's get real. A selfie? So what? Can we talk about newsworthy news now?

    December 11, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  8. Trena Edwards

    Michelle looks like she's biting her tongue, thinking " How many times do I have to tell you to stop acting like a teenager! This is not going to turn out well. I just know it."

    December 11, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  9. hitman

    A child in men's clothing! Disgusting act!

    December 11, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  10. Patricia McCue

    This is so lacking in compassion. You are at the funeral of someone important to the people of this country, not a backyard barbeque. Have some respect for heavens sake...

    December 11, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  11. AmericanVet

    LOL the guy just keeps getting worse and worse. I am sure all you people who voted for him are feeling pretty stupid arent ya?

    December 11, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  12. E

    This is nothing. Worry about the bigger picture folks.

    December 11, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  13. Anita

    "For reasons unknown"? She didn't like the flirting, no way was she going to have it, u sittin over here now.

    December 11, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  14. Alan

    Obama is about Obama period. He was not in South Africa to honor Mandela but to promote himself? Sigh......

    December 11, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  15. hefailed

    Slipthalo – Oh...well....there you have it. If the photographer says their behavior is ok, then I guess it's ok...

    December 11, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  16. alyce

    Come on people...who really cares? Did they hurt anyone? This was not disrespectful to President Mandela at all. They were having a funny moment...are you kidding me. Lighten up people. They are human beings like everyone else.

    December 11, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  17. Tzeitel

    Etiquette Rule #1: Don't play with your cell phone on a funeral!

    December 11, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  18. Greatmutato

    As the right gets on it high horse, and those uninterested in wanting to know why perhaps they need to reread the article and take careful note of this paragraph; "All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader," Schmidt wrote in a blog post. "It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed – I didn't see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the US or not. We are in Africa."

    December 11, 2013 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  19. Anita

    Previous commentor completely correct, unstately, unpresidential, undignified, unworthy of their stature and position they were elected to, horrible.

    December 11, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  20. Anonymous

    First of all, the President is not taking a "selfie"- a selfie is a photo of yourself. Clearly the female is taking the photo. Secondly, it looks like a spontaneous moment where she pulled out her camera and took a quick shot. Would have been silly to make a big deal and refuse a picture. No harm done, nothing you dont see done anywhere, all the time anymore and certainly nothing that should have been a "news" story. Some people just like to create drama where the is none.

    December 11, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  21. Anita

    "Buckn" has said what i have known before his 1st election, no integrity, no moral fiber, no real class, not really qualified to occupy that station.

    December 11, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  22. Gina Smythe

    My opinion I find is disrespectful. Was this really the time and place for THIS? Kudo's to Mrs. Obama for showing respect for the reason they are there. Have a chat with your hubby. He could learn from you.

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  23. john

    Is this appropriate to do this at ANYONES funeral?? of course not. By the way, it looks like Michelle is too far away to fit in the "selfie", Looks like she is being her normal angry frowning self...nothing new there.

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  24. OldSchool

    Nobody cares.

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  25. Keli

    Typical of Obama. Who continues to show a lack of character. Taking a selfie at anyone's funeral anywhere no matter what your position is in poor taste and shows a complete lack of respect for the person who passed and their family. Obama has provided yet another reason he isn't capable of leading and why twice I didn't vote for him. He continues to make a mockery of the position and embarrass this once great nation.

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
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