Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
12 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. scarf

    Obama takes a selfie while Mandela's people are dancing in the streets. Doesn't sound too disrepectful to me, just joining in the festivities. If this is what the right is upset about today, Obama must be doing a pretty good job in their minds with the important parts of his job.......

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  2. Lord Toronaga

    Who cares. I think it's great. I can see Michelle Obama cringing because her husband is getting cozy with the blond chick.

    December 11, 2013 12:01 pm at 12:01 pm |
  3. Element

    has anyone seen deezer d lately?

    December 11, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  4. KimH

    What an embarrassment this guy is. Were there not going to be enough press/official photos of him and his pals to suit him? Geez! What is he a teenager at a rock concert? He looks like he's flirting with Thorning-Schmidt. Michelle looks like she's cringing.

    December 11, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  5. GhostDogNY

    Is this why you watched the celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela with the rest of the world, to find fault with the President or was there another reason? For all you haters who look for any and all opportunities to criticize President Obama try learning about South African culture and celebrating a person's life after they pass away. In addition, for all you psychics who are reading The First Lady's mind in this photograph do something constructive with your superpowers like discovering when the next terrorist attack against America or any country will take place....hmmm, I didn't think so. This celebration was all about Nelson Mandela and the people who participated are a testament to his legacy and how he was able to bring people together in life and death. So what, the President took a picture with others and smiled. Look around, watch the footage, thousands of people were smiling, singing, laughing taking pictures and dancing. Learn to understand people and culture before rushing to judgement. A bit of self introspect might go a long way also.

    December 11, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  6. Felsey

    Mandela was known for his laughter and sense of humor. He would have been thrilled to know that leaders of nations were enjoying themselves at his memorial. He probably would have taken part in the "selfie" if he were alive. It is a shame that people are so desperate to demonize a democratically elected leader.

    December 11, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  7. Not the smartest move

    Was not the wisest decision.

    December 11, 2013 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  8. Warren

    Time for an investigation.. Where is Issa??

    December 11, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  9. Sniffit

    ""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.""

    Yes, but you see, Mr. Schmidt, the American Media and conservatives, as is already well know, feel it is their right and duty to graft their own values and perspectives onto all other cultures. South Africans were celebrating, laughing, dancing, singing, cheering, etc., and so apparently the entire stadium, according to CNN and the GOP/Teatrolls, was filled with disrespectful, inappropriate a-holes who were behaving in a manner that impugned the proper solemnity and morbidity of the occasion. CNN and the MSM are totally unaware of just how insanely insulting they're acting towards South African culture with this attempt to manufacture nontroversy, and it's quite literally because they feel it is their right to judge everyone based on our own cultural standards we apply in this country, instead of recognizing that some people are indeed different than us and that it's perfectly ok that they are.

    December 11, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  10. grace

    STOP criticizing Obama you're hurting my feelings. I voted for him twice and I know he will get around to doing everything he promised and fix this country, its just taking him a long time because of how badly Bush ruined the country So give him a brake.

    December 11, 2013 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  11. Bong Asis

    I see nothing wrong...they are busy people and that's the only chance they can capture that precious moment together.

    December 11, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  12. Joan

    Stupid story, plain and simple about the President's picture with other leaders. The photographer himself said it was not what it seemed. The President of the free world gave an amazing twenty minute eulogy that millions of people around the world praised and what does the American media cover? This and the President shaking hands with a Castro! Canadian media gave the speech the proper coverage it deserved, not the American media. Why? Perhaps this is what is wrong with America. The media only feeds the American public controversial garbage instead of intelligent coverage of world and national events. Maybe the public isn't smart enough to understand intelligent news or the media doesn't know how to cover it properly.

    December 11, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  13. Anthony Talbert

    Why doesn't it surprise me that CNN would spend a large part of their story on this defending Mr. Obama?

    December 11, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  14. BrewCrew0610

    Unfortunatly, at this point not surprising; seems our nation is becoming more and more disappointed by this president almost every day now

    December 11, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  15. Malory Archer

    dr69

    For those who are in defense of the POTUS, you would have crucified George Bush if he would have behaved this way.

    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    What – allowing someone to take his photo at a loud, boisterous celebration of life at an outdoor stadium? Somehow I doubt that, but as I stated earlier NOBODY would have taken a photo of themselves with the previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because it's REALLY hard to take a "selfie" with someone while you're hurling your shoes at them.

    December 11, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  16. KSTexas

    CNN, you are no better than the TMZs and paparazzi of the world. This was a celebration of the life of Nelson Mendela, where dignataries from around the world gave impassioned speeches honoring a great man. Yet all you can talk about is a selfie that the president took?!?! If I were sitting next to the Danish and English Prime Ministers I would have taken a selfie too....and I'm South African so the life and death of Mandela touches me life more than most.

    Stories like this is why I get my REAL news from other news outlets.

    December 11, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  17. Malory Archer

    KimH

    What an embarrassment this guy is. Were there not going to be enough press/official photos of him and his pals to suit him?

    +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

    Do you have ANY clue who the woman seated next to him – the one TAKING THE PHOTO – is?

    December 11, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  18. SeattleExplorer

    Isn't there some real news or a good human interest story somewhere? This is just slanderous and stupid. Can't take a picture of yourself at a funeral?

    December 11, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  19. Lord Toronaga

    The real story is the phoney interpreter for the deaf. WOW. That's so funny. It reminds me of the Wood Allen movie "Bananas" when the lunatic Spanish interpreter shows up and says everything in English with a Latino accent. Classic. He is then chased away with guys in white swatting him with a butterfly net.

    December 11, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  20. Thomas

    We need a comity to look into why people smile !

    Where is Darrell Issa ?

    December 11, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  21. Jen

    ...I don't think I care.

    Now I do care about the shaky roll out of the ACA, Obama's questionable leadership during the government shutdown, and his use of drone strikes. But a selfie? Pound sand, folks.

    December 11, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  22. aginorr

    President Class hard at work as usual. What a clown.

    December 11, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  23. deseon

    Obama could run into a burning building to save disabled orphans and Republicans would find something that he did wrong.

    December 11, 2013 12:11 pm at 12:11 pm |
  24. Carol

    Way to Mr. President for taking in the moment and celebrating life! If Nelson Mandela was looking down on the that scene, and I'm sure he was, I bet he was proud of everyone including our President Obama's pic! As far as Michelle's disapproving look?... Really!?! Clearly in the picture she is not paying attention to her husband and is looking at something else. Why do we need to read into this picture more than what's really being shown.

    December 11, 2013 12:12 pm at 12:12 pm |
  25. John

    Who Cares? I do not see anything here inappropriate, and i am a republican.

    December 11, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
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