December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
9 years 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.



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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 BeyoncĂ©– 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. Lou45

    Tasteless, you can't make a silk purse out of a sows ear!

    December 12, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  2. PulSe

    All reader's Note to Self:

    Must Get Life.

    December 12, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  3. Dave Mason

    Laughing at a funeral, that shows a l ot of respect for the departed. I guess under this "King" Oblaimer, nothing is surprising anymore. I wonder while he was there if he asked about why the African Kings sold their own people into slavery 150 years ago?

    December 12, 2013 03:56 pm at 3:56 pm |
  4. Johnp40

    Oh-bama, you were sure cozy with tht fine-lookin' Danish lady !

    December 12, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  5. vinster76

    selfie at a funeral by the potus.........just when you thought he could not get any lower.......does anyone have another dictator he can shake hands with?????? what a shameful disgrace

    December 12, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |
  6. vinster76

    Imagine this, if you please....W is at the same funeral – takes a selfie with the blonde, then is seen laughing heartily......what do you think the headlines would be that night on the news??????

    December 12, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  7. Grant Olson

    If you have to ask...

    December 12, 2013 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  8. Kay

    Obama lovers think it was OK, Obama haters don't think it was OK, pick a side everyone.

    December 12, 2013 04:45 pm at 4:45 pm |
  9. Erik

    OMG He is human!!!! To have an opinion on this is silly.

    December 12, 2013 04:48 pm at 4:48 pm |
  10. shadhole

    Everyone calling this a "funeral" is an idiot. Mandela's funeral hasn't even happened yet. This was a memorial for the people to celebrate his life. Everyone in that stadium was singing, dancing, having a good time.

    There's no problem with these leaders taking a "selfie".

    The only problem is all the people who have massive sticks shoved so far up their asses that they're forcing feces out their mouths.

    December 12, 2013 04:49 pm at 4:49 pm |
  11. Jrad

    You'd think it would be non-newsworthy.... but apparently it's very important stuff. Lets have a 300 page discussion!

    December 12, 2013 05:33 pm at 5:33 pm |
  12. Keith Robertson

    Everything's always about him. Even someone else's memorial service.

    December 12, 2013 05:37 pm at 5:37 pm |
  13. JR

    Interesting; it seems that it's mostly the women here that are rushing to excuse away his bad behavior. I wonder what that says?

    December 12, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  14. L

    Much ado about nothing! You always try to rain on his parade but CNN and the rest will be shamed by historians for trying to point out the slightest imperfection with Pres. Obama while Whte Presidents have always been pushed up. I don't know how many times the media made excuses for Bush and said he could come back from his crazy antics. Sad comentary on the mindset of the media and the traitorous right.

    December 12, 2013 06:01 pm at 6:01 pm |
  15. The Dane

    Lets get this clear people:

    1. It was a memorial celebration, not a funeral
    2. Obama did not take a selfie – Helle Thorning Smith took a a Group Photo, of two of her collegues
    3. In the video Michelle Obama seems quite happy.
    4. It just shows that they are human. In that situation i would probably have done the same thing.
    5. I voted for Helle Thorning Smith, so i guess it is all my fault she was even there ! Sorry about that

    December 12, 2013 06:02 pm at 6:02 pm |
  16. barbara

    Is this a rhetorical question? Kind of puts him in the class with Kim Kardashian.

    December 12, 2013 06:09 pm at 6:09 pm |
  17. Tone

    It was poor judgment on the part of POTUS.

    December 12, 2013 06:13 pm at 6:13 pm |
  18. Luckjoe

    Tacky. Period.

    December 12, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  19. LA Cyclist

    It was very poor judgement on the President's behalf. That combined with the insurance company raising my premiums from 289 to 347 a month under Obamacare gives me great concern about his ability to lead properly and I really liked him.

    December 12, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  20. scourge99

    OMG! President's and other authority figures aren't actual people. They are just robots acting out scripts. They don't actual have real lives, friends, non-serious conversation, emotions, and personalities!!! How dare they pretend otherwise.


    December 12, 2013 06:26 pm at 6:26 pm |
  21. "He doesn't care folks - he's making this about himself"

    And gee, Rush, you're not doing the same thing?

    December 12, 2013 06:41 pm at 6:41 pm |
  22. hopefuldad

    Sorry, but nobody cares about this in Britain, I've not heard one person mention it here – I only happened upon this story by pure chance. Why is this even a big deal in America? And if you're a Republican banging on about how inappropriate it is, were you just as vocal when George W Bush went up being Angela Merkel and rubbed her shoulders? Then we can discuss inappropriate. Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt were having a light-hearted moment. I would think it's something that Mandela wouldn't have been bothered about; he may even have found it amusing himself.

    December 12, 2013 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  23. sara

    LOL. This was not a Funeral. This was a Memorial Service where usually there are conversations, laughter, crying, eating lots of food, taking pictures, singing (my Italian husband's family plays Frank Sinatra, "I did it my Way" every rip) lol. As far as the First Lady's expression, I bet it had Nothing to do with Helle. If I was the first lady I would've been tired, cold, wet and hungry. Get over it. So WHAT!

    December 12, 2013 09:23 pm at 9:23 pm |
  24. Scopi

    I have to agree with at least a part of what Rush Limbaugh said about this. This photo didn't go viral because Republicans are scandalized about proper etiquette at funerals. The handshake with Castro was MUCH more newsworthy, in every respect, but it was not the shot seen round the world. The selfie went viral because it crystallizes so many Americans' impression that with Obama, it is always and only about Obama. One picture is worth a thousand words–and for millions so Americans, this picture is IT.

    December 12, 2013 09:38 pm at 9:38 pm |
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