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. SkippyCanCan

    I think Michelle is ticked that her husband is chit chatting with the cute blond next to him. He does seem to be all smiles and I wonder if he would have been as giddy chatting with some old dude leader from anywhere else? Ultimately I don't think any of this is a big deal, but he was having a pretty good time at a ceremony commemorating the death of someone. Would have thought a bit more somber demeanor would have been appropriate.

    December 11, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  2. TheRightisSOWrong

    "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." -– now, anyone been to an Irish Wake?? please. respect the culture they were in for God's sake.

    December 11, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  3. Name

    Why does anyone care what hot air Limbaugh thinks? He's most certainly tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  4. Barbara

    If this was a Republican President the Liberals would be having a field day right now. Of course since it's Obama he gets a free pass.

    December 11, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    Obama – self-absorbed, egotistical...and crude.

    December 11, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  6. Democrats,Obama bad for America.

    JanB

    CNN – I can no longer consider you a legitimate news organization. Stop trying to mimic Fox News (definitely NOT legitimate). It was low of you to post this story as if there was reason to condemn Obama for his actions.
    ________________________________________

    Then go read the HUffington Post if you do not like CNN. No one really cares what you think.

    December 11, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  7. Bret

    Media hype and the manufacturing of "stories" by a 24-hour news obsessed (and exhausted) culture results in crap like this story. Everyday something else is drummed up, spun, inflated. I actually miss the days when the news was on twice a day.

    December 11, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  8. Name Ben

    There is nothing bad in it. It 's about cerebration of a life well spent.what is important most is their presence there.

    December 11, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  9. Anonymous

    You're a President at a memorial not a tween at a One Direction concert.. Act like you've been somewhere!

    December 11, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  10. Silence DoGood

    Obama must be a communist dictator because the first act of a dictator is to selfie. When selie is outlawed, only the dictator can selfie.

    December 11, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  11. holspark

    Would someone tell this Mor-o-n to try ACTING like the President of the US and not some Nim Rod tourist.....

    December 11, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  12. dan

    What is wrong with people ?
    I take it someone is getting jealous because they do not like that a black democrat person is the president.
    I am a Dane and proud to be one.
    Danes are the most happy people in the world right ??
    And why is it that people that holds the highest positions in a government cannot have so fun ?

    The South Africans has there own way of doing funerals. So why can everyone that attended the funeral take part of the spirit there ?
    At least they were not standing up and dancing like the rest of the about 50,000 people that was there.
    I wonder what people would had said if they did

    December 11, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  13. Democrats,Obama bad for America.

    Sniffit

    One might wonder whether CNN, the MSM in general and the GOP/Teatrolls recognize just how incredibly insulting they are behaving towards South African culture by pretending they have the right to graft American cultural value judgments onto this celebration and thereby attempt to manufacture a nontroversy out of this as a means of attacking Obama. They don't do "memorial service" the way some in this country do. This was an entire stadium filled with dancing, singing, cheering people enjoying themselves, being loud, expressing their joy of Mandela's life. Perhaps the MSM and GOP/Teatrolls just can't fathom that South Africans are different than most of us in some ways, or just can't fathom that conservatives in America don't get to tell the rest of the world what is appropriate behavior in response to a beloved person's passing, and how to hold a memorial service. Guess what? You have no right. You have no say. The only people who have any say whatsoever here are the South African people, and I can guarantee you this: THEY ADORE OBAMA AND FIND YOUR ATTEMPTS TO OVERLAY YOUR OWN VALUES AND JUDGMENTS ONTO THEIR MEMORIAL SERVICE TO BE INCREDIBLY INSULTING.
    _________________________________
    And just how do you know what they think, kind of self absored are we not? You liberals are really not that smart

    December 11, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  14. pamela hope

    Very poor taste.

    December 11, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  15. Namefireheart

    Obama is a degenerate.

    December 11, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  16. Thomas

    Next the GOP will complain about what color socks the president was wearing .

    December 11, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  17. Elle

    How is a picture with 3 people in it a selfie? Just askin....

    December 11, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  18. GEM217

    It was in poor taste. There definitely seemed to be some flirting going on, and clearly, Michelle did not like it. The seat-change certainly made that point!

    December 11, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  19. Cord

    Taking a "selfie" is what 13-yr-old girls do in the bathroom or at a One Direction concert.
    It's not the end of the world for the Pres to do this, but it's kind of pathetic nonetheless. No dignity . . .

    December 11, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  20. Guest

    Obama is so unprofessional. He's always playing when he should be working.

    December 11, 2013 01:15 pm at 1:15 pm |
  21. Marie MD

    Oh please, death (and taxes except for the rich) are inevitable. There is NOTHING wrong with a bit of levity at a viewing or funeral whether it's remembering the dead or a joke here or there.
    As a matter of fact in New Orleans and in South Africa they dance to celebrate the life of the dearly departed.

    December 11, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  22. Anonymous

    Ridiculous. People are hungry, suffering in the world, and all the media can focus on is this. Give me a break.

    December 11, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  23. nautiusm

    I remember when the word "selfie" meant something else.

    December 11, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  24. just asking

    Michael
    This just in: President of the United States not allowed to have fun.
    --

    isn't it better left to the golf course? the biggest memorial service of the 21st century is not the time and place for juvenile behavior. what next? lighting up a joint and passing it around? every day he has been in office he has fundamentally transformed the presidency into a pathetic laughing stock and then their is his constant divisive partisan attacks on anything or anybody body that doesn't agree with him. enough to make you sick.

    December 11, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  25. Common Sense Blogger

    Harmless...and yes, im a staunch conservative and critic of Obama's, but geesh...was he supposed to ignore the lady when she requested his part in her photo? ( I do, as a white man, disagree with the biting of the bottom lip (so Carlton Banks) – yikes – lol) I mean, is it the most appropriate time, no, but so what? As an opponent of his, I believe there are MUCH more important issues with which to debate.

    December 11, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
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