Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
1 year 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. Fed-up

    Unemployment is nearly 7%, Washington in gridlock, the country stalling in a deep recession and we're worried about the President taking a selfie? Let's keep our eye on the ball people!!

    December 11, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  2. Kyle

    Why is this even an article. I go on CNN to see articles about important world and national news, not to see 3 high political figures taking a selfie and the people of the world commenting and trying to determine if it is right or wrong. Who cares its just one photo, and ya it is at a memorial service and its not the preferred thing to do but they are there to celebrate his life and one photo isn't spitting on him. Cmon people

    December 11, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  3. McBob79

    Not presidential.

    December 11, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  4. MennoKnight

    If you already hate Obama you will use this as an example of how terrible he is.
    If you already love Obama this will be seen as cool or cute.

    I neither hate or love the man and his politics. This is only a meh story, like should you have done that, but oh well what ever.

    December 11, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  5. ranlo

    Don't care for his wife, but in this pic she is the only one with "Class"!

    December 11, 2013 02:06 pm at 2:06 pm |
  6. Steve

    This guy is a joke and an embarrassment to America.

    December 11, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  7. Casey Mack

    I for one am happy to see our president relaxing. Read the whole article. The First Lady was just joking around herself. The atmosphere was one of joy which is how the South Africans celebrate life or death. The President is just another guy who puts his pants on one leg at a time like most people. I think there are more pressing issue's then to make this out as anything but a little fun. Perhaps our world leaders should get together a little more often. We actually all can get along with just a little effort. Who knows, there could be a thawing of relations with Cuba just because of a quick handshake. The press and most of you people posting just need something or someone to bash and complain about. Do yourself a favor, post your own selfie and don't forget to smile if you can.

    December 11, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  8. kcc

    Complete and total lack of dignity. Disgusting.

    December 11, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  9. Chris

    Tasteless? The Brit's having an even better time of it, and one might ask if the Dane's skirt should've been longer. Age is not being that kind to her, IMO.

    December 11, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  10. Paul Davis

    Looks like Fox Lite has headlines with this and Handshake Gate for the next month.

    December 11, 2013 02:08 pm at 2:08 pm |
  11. bbc

    If my kid would have behave like that at any memorial I would have slap his ....
    Embarrassing that he is representing our country. It makes us all look bad.

    December 11, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  12. Chris C

    Many other cultures around the world treat a funeral as a celebration. Nelson Mandela would have encouraged people to have fun at his funeral and enjoy eachother's company and the chance to be together. Stop being so hateful 24-7.

    December 11, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  13. oh come on

    Look at the body language in the last picture. Michelle, back to the blond. Barry bowed like a whipped pup.

    Classic!

    December 11, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  14. Sam

    Regarding shaking hands with Castro – isn't that what Nelson Mandela preached and practiced – be nice to even your enemies?

    December 11, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  15. Eljefe

    Really?! Selfie at a funeral/ memorial service/ That definitely lacks class. Why not just take a picture of the body while you're at it.

    December 11, 2013 02:10 pm at 2:10 pm |
  16. Chinemerem

    This is absolutely ridiculous. Everybody takes a picture at events. Why would this one be different? South Africans were dancing and nobody said anything. Mandela died at a very ripe old age. Do you expect them to be crying while the South Africans are celebrating a life well lived by Mandela.

    December 11, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  17. Whatever But

    hahaha, Obama is into white booty Danish PM... Michelle doesn't care about the selfie, she's just bent out of shape because she's not getting any attention!

    December 11, 2013 02:11 pm at 2:11 pm |
  18. MiGi

    First of all, it was NOT a funeral, it was a memorial service and a celebration of Mandela's life!
    Secondly, how is this even news?? Republicans have nothing else to do but to complain about this? Seriously? It's just sad.

    December 11, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  19. Kyle

    Oh I've seen other pics where the First Lady looked pissed off before the Selfie. Seems like she didn't like her husband acting all flirty with the pretty blonde while she was right next to them.

    December 11, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  20. dave

    This nation is filled with cry babies just looking to get upset. It's getting worse and worse and making me sicker and sicker. He took a picture and no one was harmed. Just sick!

    December 11, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  21. Justin

    From another CNN article: "Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was celebratory, with people dancing, blowing vuvuzela plastic horns and singing songs from the anti-apartheid struggle."

    This was not a solemn funeral. I am not a fan of Obama, but I do get tired of Republicans looking for any opportunity to go on the attack. And, if a Republican were the President, the left would do the same!

    December 11, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  22. Dead Bear

    Today's Republican manufactured outrage: "I'm so offended the President to a selfie at the memorial for the guy I was calling a terrorist just yesterday!"... I love how petty your entire party has become.

    December 11, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  23. StellarJay11

    If he had done this at your spouse's memorial service, would those of you supporting him feel the same way?

    December 11, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  24. Dan J

    The photographer says Michelle Obama's stern look was taken "by chance." If that was by chance, how did he take over a dozen photos with that look, by chance?
    As far as Obama "being human," what's human about a lack of taste, a lack of control, or being rude?

    December 11, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
  25. Dead Bear

    Today's Republican manufactured outrage: "I'm so offended the President took a selfie at the memorial for the guy I was calling a terrorist just yesterday!"... I love how petty your entire party has become.

    December 11, 2013 02:15 pm at 2:15 pm |
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