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. kosh

    Been out of the game for a bit Mr. President? If you're gonna be having a good time with a pretty blond, don't do it with the wife present. That's just asking for personal problems.

    December 11, 2013 05:23 pm at 5:23 pm |
  2. No one

    Depends if the deceased was a cranky dude or if he wanted his passing to be cheery as a way to remember his life.
    If they were in Ireland I think everyone would be drunk.

    December 11, 2013 05:24 pm at 5:24 pm |
  3. Another censored commentator

    Obama is a boor and a narcissist. His behavior at a State Funeral is childish. No respect for the office whatsoever.

    December 11, 2013 05:25 pm at 5:25 pm |
  4. Lynda/Minnesota

    From the article: "Instead, it turned into a media sensation...about a selfie."

    Well, CNN and other media outlets are certainly trying to turn it into a media sensation. So, yeah. More power to the media. Or something.

    December 11, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  5. dick Ember

    Harmless. Republicans should get a life. They are idiots.

    December 11, 2013 05:28 pm at 5:28 pm |
  6. too funny

    I'm sure this was all very harmless fun and that Obama was just inviting her back for a soak in the hot tub on AF1 after a long and strenuous day of "mourning".

    December 11, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  7. commonvoice

    CNN has kept the "photographer's comments" at the very end, knowing well that most people would not read it.

    Yet, what the photographer said is ALL that matters, with everyone else' comments and observation being no more than personal speculation. In that sense, it should have been right at the TOP of the article. Unfortunately, that doesn't "sell" and so, the carefully selected spot at the very bottom. They have thus covered themselves in case there is any charge of dishonesty at reporting.

    He has said that he was "flummoxed" at people's reaction to his photograph and that he "found nothing distasteful about posing for a self-photo at this particular memorial service."

    He continued, "All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honour their departed leader.............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."

    On the First Lady's appearance he said, "...photos can lie.......In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included......Her stern look was captured by chance."

    He also added, "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."

    Only his opinion is relevant to this case. The rest are just worthless opinions, though I agree that they "sell" better AND gives the President's detractors one more opportunity to hurl abuses at him. However, such people are in no need of another opportunity...........they are going to do it ANYWAY and so, are not going to allow "facts" to get in their way of reaching that primary objective.

    December 11, 2013 05:31 pm at 5:31 pm |
  8. don in albuquerque

    Not every country in the world is Southern Baptist. Some people actually celebrate the life of the deceased. In other countries...Where people are not brain dead.

    December 11, 2013 05:32 pm at 5:32 pm |
  9. Kelly

    I think it is safe to say that the 17 hour plane ride back was a very looong and cooold one, right Michelle? Is there a wood shed on the plane?

    December 11, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  10. firewalker25b

    Can't wait to some of that Blond stuff.

    December 11, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  11. Helen Fisher

    Totally harmless. There must be something more important in the news.
    Oh, Limbaugh – that explains it.

    December 11, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  12. oddball

    Remember its NOT COOL to take a selfy at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  13. no leadership

    Tell me the last time one of you "progressive" supporters have gone ahead and decided to take a "selfie" at a funeral. Smiles and all..

    December 11, 2013 05:34 pm at 5:34 pm |
  14. JoeRice

    Harmless,but tasteless. Obama should have acted more dignified. He is suppose to be the leader of the free world and leave it to a host liberals to once again excuse this president for his foolishness.

    December 11, 2013 05:35 pm at 5:35 pm |
  15. KateAZ

    Apparantly, there was alot of loud singing and dancing going on at that time, so what's the big deal?

    December 11, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  16. Obama

    what wrong with that ?

    December 11, 2013 05:36 pm at 5:36 pm |
  17. Name Gysgt m

    I guess president thinks he is above the normal with wife! It made USA look cheap,and everyone that respects him as president should comment ! It is disrespectful at a funeral of a big leader! Than he is!!!! His wife should slapped the black off him !!! Can't wait till he's out ! Could we bbb so lucky

    December 11, 2013 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  18. Name

    In life Mandela brought blacks and whites together, and he continues to do so in passing...for those of you fixated on the selfie pose by Obama, you missed out on one of the best speeches ever made by a US leader in an international setting.

    December 11, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  19. Youvegottobe Kiddingme

    You have GOT to be kidding me?!?!?! There is NO excuse for THAT kind of behavior from ANY representative of ANY country at a funeral, ESPECIALLY for someone of N. Mandela.

    December 11, 2013 05:38 pm at 5:38 pm |
  20. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Hey Sniffit
    Speaking of appropriate my friend, what's the REAL story on the guy doing the sign language?
    Please tell me as I haven't stopped laughing all day long behind that one!
    If the guy indeed was faking it all I can say is: only in South Africa would they think that they can get away with something like that!
    LOL!!!

    December 11, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  21. nothing new

    This happens all the time it is not uncommon for black people to take photos at funerals they even take pics of the body in the casket weird

    December 11, 2013 05:39 pm at 5:39 pm |
  22. Greenspam

    As a Republican, I will criticize Obama no matter what.

    December 11, 2013 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm |
  23. Bosco

    Republicans have really lost it. They are outraged about a selfie? REALLY? Good grief. Lame. I have never seen a group of people handle LOSING so badly.

    December 11, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  24. PDXDave

    The President could poop diamonds and people would blame him for it. He could say the sky is blue, and people would argue that it's green. President Obama can't do anything right for the Grand Obstructionist Tea Party (GOtP) or evangelical "christians", so no matter what he does, he's failed in their eyes.

    December 11, 2013 05:41 pm at 5:41 pm |
  25. stlRose

    I can see how this might be taken as tacky and narcissistic (which is the very nature of a "selfie"). It's also an unusual and comprehensive gathering of people who might normally not be exposed to one another during the regular course of conducting the public servant business. Frankly, funerals can be more than a mournful event. Especially when someone has lived a long and storied life and whose natural course in the human form has been exhausted. Someone wise once told me that the older I become, the more I'll notice that funerals are often food-filled, life affirming experiences. The living may eat, drink and make merry (and make love, as well) in response to the passing of a loved one. Although not on site! And she was right. Nelson Mandela may be gone in body. His grace and generosity of spirit will shine on forever.

    December 11, 2013 05:43 pm at 5:43 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