Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
7 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. Rod C. Venger

    If the AFP photog saw nothing unusual in the shot, then why did he post it? Obviously he saw something noteworthy and too late to retract it or explain it away now.

    December 11, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
  2. tom l

    "Let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory have no problem with this while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think this is horrible.

    Oh, and let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory think what Cruz did was the worst thing in the world while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think he did the right thing."

    Ah yes, I was wondering when we'd see good ole tom trying desperately to generate a false equivalence between two substantively different things. In the grand scheme of things, Cruz isn't important enough to care, tom, but it's freekin nonsense to pretend that a harmless selfie in the midst of a singing, dancing, cheering celebration is the equivalent of someone walking out on the celebration to make (and score) political points and to set up issuance of political messaging afterwards. Your little game of trying to prove that "both sides do it" and 'both sides are equally wrong" all the time is pathetic.

    ======

    And how am I wrong? I am exactly right. Obama's selfie? No big deal to me at all. Cruz's leaving during the Castro speech? No big deal either. Standing up for his principles and didn't do anything to promote what he was doing. He simply walked out. The feigned indignation is palpable on both sides. Cruz is simply a senator from a state. He wasn't representing the U.S. He was there to show respect for Mandela and simply felt that listening to a man who has destroyed the country that his father is from was too much to handle so he walked out. No big deal. Except if you're trying to score political points. The only ones who know who Cruz is are the rabid lefties on here looking for any reason to slam him. I hardly think that there he is even known by anyone outside of the United States. Like you tell people all the time, GROW UP or "it seems like people just can't stand to see a man with brown skin who is standing up for what he believes in".

    December 11, 2013 03:50 pm at 3:50 pm |
  3. paul P.

    Really, this is why the US is so messed up. Because people make such a big deal out of nothing. He's a person, they are people. Im willing to be that he was there out of respect not out of being president. In any event, we live in an electronic world...Our president should not be a person and most assuredly should not use technology...Cmon really. He did nothing wrong...I mean dont we have better things to be mad at, like a 3yr old kissing a hand...That child needs to be imprisoned for his act of harassment....Cmon America...Really (this is directed at anyone who has so much time on their hands that they worry about stupid stuff)!

    December 11, 2013 03:51 pm at 3:51 pm |
  4. skarphace

    tammy: "2016 cannot get here soon enough"

    LOL. I am sure you said the same about 2012. I am also sure you will be saying the same about 2020 and 2024 when Democrats take POTUS both those times as well. Republicans will not win another general election until they move away from their disdain of all minority groups and women. But cry on.

    December 11, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  5. ANNIER

    Dear God or Santa: if you exist, could you PLEASE have a dump-truck run over the fat drug-addled hatemonger, limbaugh. This would go a great way towards stopping the river of hate and rhetoric which spews from him and his stupid fans. This is the only thing I want for Christmas. Thank you...Annie

    December 11, 2013 03:54 pm at 3:54 pm |
  6. B.O.B.

    No matter what side of the aisle you support, this was simply unpresidential and the First Lady knows it.

    December 11, 2013 03:55 pm at 3:55 pm |
  7. jocinnamon

    Although a memorial service, the occasion was moreover a celebration of life! I think Mr. Mandela was smiling as well.

    December 11, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  8. Jason

    Everyone does know that this wasn't simply a funeral but a celebration of his life. There was also dancing, jokes, and various other celebrations of his life. If you are going to focus on a state figurehead taking a momentary photo, then I think I have my answer when I ask why our country is broken. People would rather have fake outrage than real meaningful outrage over real issues. What have these out of touch people become when our president can't even build friendships with leaders of other countries without you howling like a jealous child. Its sad.

    December 11, 2013 03:57 pm at 3:57 pm |
  9. greybeard

    Who cares!?!? It was a handshake.

    December 11, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  10. Truth Squad

    If this is considered a non-story and people are calling this story bad taste and a slow-news day, I guess the 2000 was a slow news decade as the majority of "news" all you lefties complaining about everything Bush did.

    Imagine the uproar if Bush took a selfie and had an "interpreter" that made fake hand signals. It would probably be news for months, since the fake Turkey story last 2-3 weeks.

    December 11, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  11. The Real Tom Paine

    -Sniffit

    "Let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory have no problem with this while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think this is horrible.

    Oh, and let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory think what Cruz did was the worst thing in the world while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think he did the right thing."

    Ah yes, I was wondering when we'd see good ole tom trying desperately to generate a false equivalence between two substantively different things. In the grand scheme of things, Cruz isn't important enough to care, tom, but it's freekin nonsense to pretend that a harmless selfie in the midst of a singing, dancing, cheering celebration is the equivalent of someone walking out on the celebration to make (and score) political points and to set up issuance of political messaging afterwards. Your little game of trying to prove that "both sides do it" and 'both sides are equally wrong" all the time is pathetic.
    ****************
    You know, I went on record already stating that I did not think what Cruz did was a big deal, and I don't think this is either. We all have to take responsibility for our actions, but both are really pretty small things when you look at them in the contect of the individual. Cruz feels strongly about Casto: its his right to walk out if he sees fit. Mandela's memorial service was a celebration of his life, and Obama was enjoying a light moment with 2 other heads of state. I have been very emphatic about what I feel about this, yet someone, yet again, feels compelled to judge me even when the evidence of my own comments suggests otherwise. Once again, tom l took the easy way out.

    December 11, 2013 03:58 pm at 3:58 pm |
  12. Che Lopez

    I have been to many a funeral, and the family laughs and cries together. Laughs a lot too!
    OK, so I am not the President of the United States, However, it did seemed like a light moment between 3
    "Heads of State", all the same age, speak the same language and sharing a lighter moment of the day. And this after the President shook Cuba's President Castro hand- unspeakable- try polite! a real gentlemen.
    Even if it is to keep your enemies closer. I think YOU think that would be better! I like his style better!
    We need to gather around our President that we voted for and show our support is still there for him!
    Come on, get your head out of the sand! Our work is not done!

    December 11, 2013 04:00 pm at 4:00 pm |
  13. Bill, Bloomington Il

    Mending fences? I thought the world loves Obama. Unless liberals lied. No that couldnt be. Liberals never lie.

    December 11, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  14. Cajun

    Right gaetano! Were you there to see all the people partying?

    December 11, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  15. sue

    It was poor taste, poor judgement and extremely crass by all 3. A funeral is not the place for this.

    December 11, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  16. obvious

    before hearing any spin doctors from the left or right I was SHOCKED to see such a photo of someone at a funeral.

    i suppose it makes a nice photo op to have a smiling white woman and black man in south africa, but it struck me as incredibly unseemly.

    seeing obama with a blonde woman and no michelle in selfie is suspect, and then to see michelle so stoic in the wide view just shows how much of an idiot barack is.

    personally i dont think appearances are everything, but we KNOW obama does. this is why the selfie is so disgusting.

    December 11, 2013 04:01 pm at 4:01 pm |
  17. Markass

    President Obama could cure cancer and end world hunger all in the same day and right wing haters would still somehow find fault with him. Conservatives have taken their hate speech and obstructionist tactics to such an unprecedented level with this administration that there can be only one explanation. It's neither a matter of politics or ideology, but simply race motivated hatred.

    December 11, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  18. skarphace

    OMG! It's selfiegate!! Run for the hills!!!

    By the way, does this mean that unclegate is over? You know, when Obama (in the eyes of Tea Freaks) lied about living with his uncle? This conspiracy will have an even shorter lifespan that that one did.

    December 11, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  19. timothy

    Or yawn?

    December 11, 2013 04:02 pm at 4:02 pm |
  20. ivo

    tasteless like everything else he does.

    December 11, 2013 04:03 pm at 4:03 pm |
  21. SAtireBound88

    I don't get it...why is this a big deal. That stadium was a big party celebrating the life of a very happy and very wonderful person. Top that off with the fact that he was engaging in a bit of diplomacy via fun. Heaven knows we need to do it given the recent NSA debacles. I seriously don't understand why him taking a selfie at a memorial where everyone is literally singing and dancing in remembrance of the late Nelson Mandela is so bad.

    December 11, 2013 04:04 pm at 4:04 pm |
  22. jim

    2014 baby!!!!

    December 11, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  23. chet

    What an idiot! Here he is at a world leader remembrance of Nelson Mandela and he is laughing and doing selfies with a hot Danish leader.. Micheal's face says it all – you ain't getting any tonight or may ever again! Gonna be married to a NONE!
    Disrespectful and childish self centered actions!

    December 11, 2013 04:05 pm at 4:05 pm |
  24. Anonymous

    Do they think they are at a football game? Leaders of countries acting like 14 year olds...Disgusting!!!

    December 11, 2013 04:06 pm at 4:06 pm |
  25. skarphace

    What shows more disrespect from American leaders: Obama participating in a cell-photo during a celebration with other world leaders, or Cruz walking out of the same celebration to score political points at home?

    The answer should be obvious. Our President has class. Ted Cruz is a self-absorbed blowhard who has pipe-dreams of the Presidency.

    December 11, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
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