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. Crampon

    I vote for harmless and tasteless.

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

    I don't know about Michelle, but I don't think my wife would be very pleased with me taking a "selfy" of myself and a pretty Danish dish, even if a third party was present. I would have asked my wife to join in just to save my own butt.

    December 11, 2013 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  3. SteakAndRoses

    I heard about this, and wanted to see it for myself. What I see in the ACTUAL photo, not the chopped down media-story version, is Michelle Obama is the only one looking serious...everyone else pictured is either in a conversation or taking the picture. Then I read this quote from the photographer himself –

    "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."

    So can somebody tell me now, WHY IS THIS A STORY? The 24 news media is truly out of control. Manufacturing stories out of innocuous events. This is a bad road we're going down.....

    December 11, 2013 05:06 pm at 5:06 pm |
  4. Mamaput2

    What a Knucklehead.

    December 11, 2013 05:08 pm at 5:08 pm |
  5. Henry Vu

    I think it is very cute and harmless.

    December 11, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  6. Burbank

    These nasty, mean spirited Republicans need to get lives and stop bashing Obama for any tiny thing they can think of, real or imagined. There was nothing wrong with taking a picture of himself with friends like that. South Africa was having a celebration of Mandela's life, it was not a somber funeral setting.

    December 11, 2013 05:10 pm at 5:10 pm |
  7. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Woo-hooo!!
    Meanwhile....
    The photographer that took the picture of the three heads of states taking a selfie clarified the entire situation on cnn 12 noon today.
    He did this after the New York Post went buckwild over imagined slights and fits of jealousy.
    The New York Post should change its' name to the Enquirer and this thread is sounding more and more like the Rush limburger Show and or Jerry Springer.
    Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!
    ROFLMAO!!!

    December 11, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  8. JEANNE

    Conservatives are a strange group of people – judgemental, self serving, greedy and ignorant. I sure hope your god does not think the same – or you guys are in trouble.

    December 11, 2013 05:11 pm at 5:11 pm |
  9. 1fastrack

    (1) From the way Limp Baugh has gone on, you would think Obama is the only one in the picture. Can he not censure the other two.????? (2) How did THEIR contries' press report it??? (3) Did anyone actually ASK Michelle about her reaction? "Obviously unimpressed" isn't exactly obvious if she was focused on something else and didn't even know what was going on - oh, but then we DO like to jump to conclusions, don't we? (4) In South Africa, the people honor the lives of the departed, they don't wear black and mounful when someone dies...they don't waste time regretting that someone is gone; instead they celebrate that someone's accomplishments and the joy he brought to their lives. THIS WAS A CELEBRATION, people! (5) why is this even in the news????

    December 11, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  10. amy

    the man has no class.........another day another example

    December 11, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  11. Jarvis

    People actually did not read this article. It is shameful for people to criticize his actions, but they are too lazy to read the article all the way through. Smh.

    December 11, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  12. Maximus Gilabatus

    Tasteless to be sure!

    December 11, 2013 05:12 pm at 5:12 pm |
  13. John Paul

    It looked very unpresidential to me.

    December 11, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  14. don in albuquerque

    I guess even the President is welcome to enjoy a moment. However the real story is Teddy Crud walking out of the funeral in a showboating attempt. Why only one short story. Crud got you in his pocket CNN? Did our tax's pay to send Crud to the funeral? Who made the decision to send him? Work hard CNN and maybe you can hold Obama to two terms as you become totally irrelevant.

    December 11, 2013 05:13 pm at 5:13 pm |
  15. Tony B.

    Doesn't surprise me with a name like Crampon voting for harmless and tasteless is ok with ya!

    December 11, 2013 05:14 pm at 5:14 pm |
  16. Tampa Tim

    After watching the stumble bum from Texas flail through his non stop comedy act, it appears that right wingnuts are now experts on 'being presidential.'

    December 11, 2013 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  17. Allen Henry Colbert

    I do not see anything wrong in the way Michelle Obama reacted to President Obama taking a picture. People have different moments within them selves only she knows what was on her mind. It was a leader that has passed on I am sure there were many emotions and strange looks in the crowd as well.

    December 11, 2013 05:17 pm at 5:17 pm |
  18. CryBabies

    Non event

    December 11, 2013 05:18 pm at 5:18 pm |
  19. Tampa Tim

    If the pompous gasbag head of the GOP, Limbaugh, thinks its bad, it has to be harmless.

    December 11, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  20. Sniffit

    "is taking s smiling selfie appropriate behavior at a funeral?"

    I dunno...Is it appropriate to deliberately mischaracterize a stadium full of partying, singing, dancing, cheering South African folks celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela as a "funeral" when the body wasn't present and he wasn't being buried just so you can rationalize finding fault with Obama (or generate clicks on your website)?

    December 11, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  21. grichard1956

    Not the right venue, so it is tasteless and undignified.

    December 11, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  22. ObjectiveGuy

    The First Beast (aka Michelle) looks NONE too happy about her hubby flirting with the pretty blond lady! Bet she's gonna make him pay for that.

    December 11, 2013 05:19 pm at 5:19 pm |
  23. Me In FL

    Think it was a bad decision for the moment, knowing so many eyes and cameras were on him. They could have even just lowered the phone, not looked so cheerful and snapped a photo and others would have thought they were just sharing family photos on the phone.

    December 11, 2013 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  24. VEW2012

    I vote for harmless, I'm sure the others wanted their picture taken with the President. Really don't we have more serious things to talk about? Now, if he was taking a picture of himself with Mandela, that would be tasteless. Plus, who cares what that fool Limbag had to say, he could do us all a favor and move to Costa Rica ....Oh right promises, promises!.

    December 11, 2013 05:21 pm at 5:21 pm |
  25. Loathstheright

    Harmless to sane people, the end of the world as we know it to republicans.

    December 11, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 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