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. in peace

    WHY is this considered news????? Why is this even an issue, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM people. Can we all just lighten up some.

    December 11, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  2. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    President Obama should be on Mt. Rushmore for surviving more hatred than any president in recent memory.

    December 11, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  3. Angela

    Taking pictures and smiling is not showing disrespect. Idk how many funerals any of u have been to but my family is very large and it is like a reunion when a family member passes. Lots of laughs, smiles, food, drinks, etc. We share memories from past times and make new ones on the date. Even tho it is a sad reason for everyone to reunite, it is also what most cultures do. Make the best of a sad situation.

    December 11, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  4. GrogInOhio

    Sigh... slow news day?

    December 11, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  5. Dan Heath

    For all of you fools that are saying Obama was just joining in with the South African culture nothing to see here... The point is he is the President of the United States and supposed to be a dignitary. One who carries a certain level of respect and by the nature of the position is held to a higher standard. His choice to take part in a selfie is not the worst thing in the world but it re-enforces the notion that he is not acting the part of the office. Also, a President should never put himself in a position where the rest of the world is asking..Was he flirting with that woman... at a funeral memorial no less? If you don't understand the outcry you are not in touch with traditional American values, and last I checked he is the President of the United States of America not South Africa.

    December 11, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  6. in peace

    I do not consider this a problem no matter who is president. It is just such a NON issue, really sad that America has gotten so picky, so divided. Incredibly hurtful no matter the political view.

    December 11, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  7. Robt

    There is a time and place for everything. Yucking it up at the memorial service of an international figure isn't one of them – but that's what you get if you were expecting class from a "leader" whose only claim to fame was that of a community organizer.

    December 11, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  8. Matt Jameson

    This president is a joke But so is making a big deal about this photo

    December 11, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  9. Nick

    Remember, the people saying that this is not a big deal were the same ones saying Sen. Rubio's career was over for taking a sip of water.

    December 11, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  10. Chaim

    I'm not a fan of Obama, but I think too much is being read into this. I think everyone is looking at it through the lens of our own funeral culture, where it is a somber occasion. Theirs may be festive, and full of life. A celebration of that persons life, and not a dwelling on their passing. Photos of other people at the ceremony show them to be smiling, and looking as if they are enjoying themselves.

    December 11, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  11. Malory Archer

    t

    So... would you all feel it was ok to do, harmless, etc., if it were, say, George Bush? I doubt it. You would all be screaming that he was an idiot, etc.

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

    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 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  12. ItsMeSpfld

    Am I the only one that notices that it wasn't the President that TOOK the photo? He and the British PM posed for the photo for the Danish Prime Minister, who was the one TAKING THE "SELFIE"/

    December 11, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  13. Lew

    The President of the United States acting like a giggling teenager on a world stage pretty much falls in line with his entire presidency to this point.

    December 11, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  14. Malory Archer

    Dan Heath

    For all of you fools that are saying Obama was just joining in with the South African culture nothing to see here... The point is he is the President of the United States and supposed to be a dignitary.

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

    Guess you've never heard the old expression "When in Rome..."

    December 11, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  15. Larry in Houston

    Answer : Harmless – You shake hands with people – doesn't matter whether you at a wedding or a funeral or a "celebration" or a "memorial" or whatever you want to call it. Other POTUS's have done this, with various Leaders of other Countries....Reagan / Bush / Clinton Carter / has done this .... remember Gorbachev ? and others that I cannot think of, at this time..... doesn't matter if they are a 3rd world country or not, or if their people wear pajamas for clothes or not. Or if they oppress their people, or not, or if it's a communist country or not.....A handshake is a greeting, for crying out loud. AND the photo Business – so what's wrong with being Human ? Ceo's do it, Presidents of other countries most likely does this, it just hasn't gotten the exposure that we have, in this country, is all. So what the hell is wrong with taking a pic – with someone that is sitting next to you ?? I know a lot of people that was sitting next to their wives – and somebody that is sitting next to them (on the other side) decides that they want a pic of you & them....I guess IF you had an Arm that would stretch 10 feet on each side, and 10 feet in front of you, you would be able to include 5 or 6 people that is sitting next to each other....Michelle is smart enough to Not pay much attention to this type of stuff. In other words, she wouldn't be angry over this type of pettiness.

    December 11, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  16. Subnx

    I'm no Obama fan but nothing wrong with taking a picture. The celebration and comemeration was more like an Irish wake than an English funeral. No problem with this one.

    December 11, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  17. Mary

    Just would've liked to see Mr Prez have a little more class. I don't care how everyone else was acting and dancing. They are not representing the country I live in during an international event. And please Mr Limbaugh, do not imply our Prez could ever assume Nelson Mandela's place on the world stage. He fell on his face with his Trayvon Martin comments that created even more division in this country. That incident was a perfect opportunity to bring people together. The opportunity was there. The ability was not.

    December 11, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  18. NameHugh

    Rush limbaugh is nothing but an entertainer and nothing more. His comments r made to Stir up controversy and confusion among the masses. He does not believe in half the stuff he preaches.

    December 11, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  19. Name Albert

    Who gives a crap...is there nothing else to report about.. he can shove that phone up this u know what for all I care!

    December 11, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  20. Rick

    "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."

    If a relative took a "selfie" at a family funeral, most people "acting like human beings" would've turned it into a family scandal if not a brawl.

    December 11, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  21. JanB

    OH BOY!!! Another so-called "scandal" for the repugnacans to get their knickers all twisted up in a knot about. And for the commenter who said if this was George Bush we would have been callling him an idiot: NEWS FLASH! He was and still is. The jury is no longer out on that one.

    December 11, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  22. Martin Navarrete

    A wonderful icebreaker. Mr Mandela will approve this moment of sense of humor, relax people. I f someone has respect for Mr. Mandela's legacy is Mr. Barack Obama. Anyone more proper than Obama?…relax, life is beautiful.

    December 11, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  23. Sammy

    I agree with Joan's comment. The photo is not the story at all. A great man passed away last week and leaders around the world paid their respect to Pres. Mandela. Its was a somber occation and beautiful to see the world ackowledge how difficult it is to to be a leader. Regretably, the people who will pay the most attention to this "selfie story" wouldn't have even known there was a such a memorial if it weren't for these photos. It's a lot more "tasteless" to make this the story than taking a 5sec self during the memorial.
    However, in my unbaised opion/critique of President Obama I would say: when you're in a hole...stop digging.

    December 11, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  24. Allie F.

    One again, our pernicious POTUS disgraces America. This is funeral, for Pete's sake....not party-time for our celelbrity fraud! Obviously, Obama has no dignity, respect, honor or civility nor does he respect the office of President and what it represents on the world stage; he continues to denigrate this once great country, he is an insult to us all. Funny? NO! And anyone who thinks it is, has no manners or respect either.

    December 11, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  25. Anonymous

    This is just stupid molehill/mountain, count the clicks, nonsense.

    December 11, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
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