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

    There is a time and a place, this was neither.

    December 11, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  2. Anonymous

    Oh God who cares? I wonder If Limbaugh would point a finger if it were Bush, McCain or Palin sitting there. It does not detract form the celebration of Nelson Mandela's life.

    December 11, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  3. quinLee

    This is nothing but a Rorschach test. You see in it what you want to see. The results can range from despicable- to whatever-to this is great.

    December 11, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  4. rbockman

    it's all about him, not the people he was elected to serve.

    December 11, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  5. Guest

    MY FAVORITE PITURE IS #7 its when Michelle sits between the two to avoid more on lookers and avoid the world talking about how desrepectful they were. getting close to PM A darling ill fix that. LOL what a loser situation. sad really. how would you feel if this was your families service? would you care or be somewhat mad

    December 11, 2013 01:36 pm at 1:36 pm |
  6. Gross

    "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."

    Dude please come to one of my family member's funeral and try to act this way, I dare you.

    December 11, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  7. Biglifter

    No class, at all. Sadly, It's not surprising

    December 11, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  8. gusm

    I see nothing wrong with it. It was in a stadium which was more of a celebration of Mandela's life. People were singing and dancing; it wasn't a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 01:37 pm at 1:37 pm |
  9. Mark

    Anyone that sees this as something more than 3 people taking a picture of themselves....really really really needs to get a life.

    December 11, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  10. Had it been bush

    "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."

    would have read.... " I cannot Believe the disrespect".

    December 11, 2013 01:38 pm at 1:38 pm |
  11. Anonymous

    SNIP: "It was more like a carnival atmosphere" oh I guess you mean just like the carnival, going on in our government? How about the disrespect for his wife? The blonde isn't smiling and doing selfies with mama O, now is she? JMHO

    December 11, 2013 01:39 pm at 1:39 pm |
  12. abmri60

    They are acting like fifteen year old girls.

    December 11, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  13. Lucas

    Child'n'Chief doing what he does best...

    December 11, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  14. Had it been bush

    Had it been bush slapping the knee and taking selfies CNN and you Obama groupies on here would be going HAM.

    December 11, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  15. Joan

    Check out the video showing how the British parliament and David Cameron handled it. They took it as good fun and not a HUGE scandal as America seems to be doing. Some people need to get a life.

    December 11, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  16. James

    I see 0bama's been taking more than just golf tips from Tiger !

    December 11, 2013 01:42 pm at 1:42 pm |
  17. sammy750

    Why doesn't the press and media focus on the radial Rep. Stockman of TX. He is trying to win a Senate seat. He is the most right wing radical of all the law makers. Publish some of his extreme views so the voters know about this guy

    December 11, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  18. Nina

    This was a celebration of life, not death. The stadium was filled with singing, dancing, laughing, and good vibes. Why is this cell phone picture even a story? Shame on the media. Instead of doing this kind of nonsense, they could actually be reporting on real stories–for example, the illiteracy rate in the US, the percentage of high school drop outs, the infrastructure nightmare we face in every city, how we will separate ourselves from oil dependency....there is a long list.

    December 11, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  19. Gurgyl

    Nothing wrong with Obama, wrong lies with GOP thinking garbage of these postings.

    December 11, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  20. Quashi

    There are 3 heads of state in that selfie but only the black one gets accused of being improper...something's never change...
    Also Danish prime minister is dubbed "hot blond" to further right wing ire. No wonder Americans are not so credible on the world stage...smdh

    December 11, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  21. David Laws

    Unless David Cameron can morph into a black woman, the photos were taken at different times and had nothing to do with each other. I'm sure that photo shoot didn't last more than a few seconds and Obama wasn't partying with a blond during the entire event! Get a grip people!

    December 11, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  22. Joan

    Also, a former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell was shown up dancing during the ceremony on Canadian news broadcasts and it was not deemed inappropriate. They just said she was getting into the spirit of things. If Canada and Britain can see it for what it really was, why can't Americans?

    December 11, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  23. Jeff

    reminds me of the time Bill Clinton was caught on camera laughing during Ron Brown's funeral. At least Clinton managed to fake an immediate sad face. Obama's classless character is shining through.

    December 11, 2013 01:45 pm at 1:45 pm |
  24. Tim

    I dislike Obama as much as the next guy, which says a lot..,but it was no biggie. It was a celebration of a long life well lived.

    December 11, 2013 01:47 pm at 1:47 pm |
  25. Maria Martin

    If hundred of people were dancing around them, it must have been like so strange for the all American culture. Yes our funerals are usually sad affairs, they were in the presence of the celebration of life for Mandela. Maybe they also had a moment of relaxation. These funerals take a very long time, thousands of people around, and three hours later they were still facing cameras.... So how can you judge what really happened when you were not there. A newspaper can say anything they want depending on which side they are. Obama, I am not judging the man for a picture, a moment of laughter. I am judging him for what he has done for this country in the last years. One good thing: I am able to get healthcare after been rejected by insurance companies for weight issue. Now I am waiting to see if immigration reform is approved because we have 11 million people in limbo!! Get real, people. If you must criticize do it for a good reason, for something that affects you and others. I could not care less if he decides to sing a song or laugh or just sit at a funeral. He has many responsibilities on his shoulders, and many more white hair that before.....

    December 11, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55