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. Myra

    Is this what CNN has become? Looking to create news that isn't there? This is ridiculous. CNN was once a respectful news channel. Now you are FOX News looking to create controversy.

    December 11, 2013 04:44 pm at 4:44 pm |
  2. Standard Issue

    "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."

    Couldn't agree more. He loves the limelight, at anybody's expense. It's what Obama is all about.

    December 11, 2013 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  3. hank

    CNN give the man a break, He is just a human being! do you really think that Nelson Mandela would want this to be what came out of his funeral? The media is taking pictures at this funeral, why cant someone who cared about the Mandela and looked to him as a role model take pictures there as well?

    December 11, 2013 04:47 pm at 4:47 pm |
  4. jimmyva18

    After 6 years of this clown as President, this doesn't even shock me, any longer. Epic Failure.

    December 11, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  5. Steve

    Well done Denmark, well done indeed.

    December 11, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  6. sonoranbreeze

    How very NOT presidential. It doesn't take a President to know that a selfie should never be taken at a funeral. Never. I thought he was there to "show his respect." Nope

    December 11, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  7. plastik892

    40+ pages of mostly context avoiding, self-affirming morons. Did anyone actually watch the Mandela funeral? Quite a lot of actual celebration going on. But hey, we're talking about the US, who's citizens kill each other for a shopping deal and can't imagine that other parts of the world, much less areas inside their own country, celebrate life instead of mourning death.

    "The Sun", "The Daily Mail", almost as bad as Fox.

    December 11, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  8. skarphace

    B.O.B.: "this was simply unpresidential and the First Lady knows it."

    Really? You speak for Michelle Obama? Why don't you try asking her about her opinion before spouting off that you know what she was thinking from merely her expression? She is way too intelligent for you to fathom her thoughts.

    December 11, 2013 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  9. BinFL

    Some people will complain & hate no matter what this President does...it comes down to jealousy! The haters can't stand that President Obama actually gets along well with other world leaders and they too like him, not so much like our last president I'm afraid.

    December 11, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  10. got2loveit

    Was this during the happy hour at the memorial service for Mandela? Our incompetent chief in charge behaving like a child (*sigh* ) again. Mrs. O looks angrier than usual. I bet he did not have a good time after this event.

    December 11, 2013 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  11. Tony B.

    Harmless to liberals, Tasteless is putting it mildly CNN. If Pres. Bush did this your liberal news media and all the other mouth pieces for BO would of had him Tarred, Feathered and Bar-B-Qued.

    December 11, 2013 04:56 pm at 4:56 pm |
  12. Smellferd

    What more do people need to know about this president. How can anyone possibly take him seriously?

    December 11, 2013 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
  13. Tony in Maine

    It would depend how far over the edge you are about President Obama. These same hatemongers wondered why Obama would show class by shaking the hand of another head of state – kind of like HRH Prince Ronald did on meeting with the mujadaheen in 1985.

    But, the truly hilarious comments are the ones from right wing bobbleheads who wondered if the blond was the President's Monica Lewinsky. And they're paid to pose as journalists for Faux. For the tiny-brained who still don't know – she's the Prime Minister of Denmark.

    December 11, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  14. VTGUY

    I imagine that it is quite typical of a community organizer turned president.... we told you so!

    December 11, 2013 04:58 pm at 4:58 pm |
  15. strangways

    OMG, the president is... human and was having a little fun. Should be outlawed! Better to sit there looking like you hate the world like the House Republicans.

    December 11, 2013 04:59 pm at 4:59 pm |
  16. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Blah, blah, blah...
    My President, and your President too Teatards, looks RADIANT, and HAPPY and it makes me happy to see him enjoying the company of those he is with.
    He was ASKED by the Mandela family and the South African government to come and be the FIRST to eulogize Nelson Mandela.
    What a terrific honor for our President and he stepped up to the occassion and carried himself like the statesman that he is and delivered an outstanding eulogy.
    Did you all hear how they applauded for him when he was announced? They LOOOVE him....and it is killing many of you posting on here that he is respected, intelligent, classy, and beloved.
    Makes my day to drink your tears and witness the jealousy that is tearing some of you up inside.
    Get yourselves checkout for cancer when you sign up for Obamacare.
    Peace!!

    December 11, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  17. lauradet

    It's harmless. Anything Obama does is under such scrutiny that haters just need to get a life.

    December 11, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  18. Belinda

    To quote my elders during my youth, "So if everyone else was running around naked and jumping off bridges should they (the leaders) have been doing so also"? Um, no. Bad form, bad decision.

    December 11, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  19. kichy

    This article is so DUMB , I am surprised myself that I am reading it...waisting me time here....

    December 11, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  20. jrcomo35713

    With remarks like what I see on this forum, its no wonder the government has issues with transparency. Look at some of these reactions. Do you honestly think that they would even consider unveiling what really happened at Roswell....

    December 11, 2013 05:01 pm at 5:01 pm |
  21. Grim Reaper

    Poor taste and disrespectful to the first lady.

    December 11, 2013 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  22. Sniffit

    "Concentrating on hand-shaking and a "selfie" shows that Right Wingers have nothing legitimate to complain about."

    Just you wait, they're currently working on getting the MSM to try to manufacture and sensationalize a another "controversy" that "Obama snubbed Margret Thatcher when she died but then celebrated Mandela." Don't believe me? Google it. They're starting to push that talking point hard because it carries with it some implicit racial overtones and sparks the racial resentment thing for their base.

    December 11, 2013 05:02 pm at 5:02 pm |
  23. Harlon Katz

    It comes down to simple behavior – is taking s smiling selfie appropriate behavior at a funeral? This was not done at a meal, or some other "social" event, but at a service for the late Mr. Mandela. How many of you have snapped smiling selfies at funerals?

    December 11, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  24. floridamom1

    The President of the United States should show more decorum. He is, after all, the President.

    December 11, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  25. floridamom1

    He is a disgrace. No decorum whatsoever. Even his wife was miffed. She was supposedly joking a few minutes beforehand, but the disgusting look she gave that Danish woman cannot be ignored.

    December 11, 2013 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
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