December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
7 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.



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. Tampa Tim

    Diplomacy versus the Bush Doctrine. I think the world wins in this case.

    December 10, 2013 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
  2. just asking

    michelle looks thrilled with obama's immature behavior at a solemn occassion.

    December 10, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  3. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    Awesome! Sen. Rubio was in London a couple of weeks ago talking about our ties with Great Britain and the strain between our two countries. Looks like our President and Prime Minister Cameron get along just fine Marco.

    December 10, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  4. pat d

    real class act...

    December 10, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  5. Flagship, NC

    Kind of cool.

    December 10, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  6. Tom Daw

    Seems in very poor taste especially for world leaders. It's embarrassing to the U.S.A. for its leader to show so little respect for the deceased!

    December 10, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  7. RIchard Long

    Facial Recognition profile for Schmidt and Cameron complete. Thank you Agent Obama, the NSA will take it from here.

    December 10, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  8. Thomas

    Think of how much we could accomplish with honesty , communication and respect .

    Attraction , rather then promotion .

    December 10, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  9. sally

    Tacky…he must have skipped Presidential 101.

    December 10, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  10. Mark

    You say "even leaders can get away with" the phenomenon.
    Unfortunately, this displays the self absorption of the "dear leaders".
    Notice, Michelle does not seem to condone this behavior.

    December 10, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  11. John Boner

    Michelle's expression is classic! She photobombed that picture and wasn't even in the selfie.

    December 10, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  12. Brad

    Why is this news?

    December 10, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  13. Right Wing Conservatism is a Disease

    The conservative vermin is out frothing from their filthy mouths.

    December 10, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  14. BobInIrvine

    @Mark: Why do you guys force every article into a disrespectful hatred of the President. "Dear leader?" What are you, a first grader?

    December 10, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  15. Al-NY,NY


    Tacky…he must have skipped Presidential 101.

    Duh Duh Duh-bya giving a shoulder massage...beyond creepy. He's too stupid to even take presidential 101. He's more like "See Spot Run. Run Spot Run" in remedial reading

    December 10, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  16. anonymous

    5 years in office and he still doesn't know how to act like a President. Deplorable behavior at a memorial service.

    December 10, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  17. ER

    This is at A FUNERAL.
    Total Disrespect to Nelson Mandela.

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  18. jamie

    No one ever accused the man of having any class

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  19. KH

    Michelle Obama doesn't look to thrilled about what her husband in doing.

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  20. Donna

    Well, if there is a camera within a 1000 feet of Obama it is certain he will seek it out. What a self absorbed little child.

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  21. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    Yes. Michelle's got that mother look on her face.
    Mr. President!! wth?!

    December 10, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  22. jamie

    Enjoy your vacation away from the Obamacare disaster.

    December 10, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  23. Jim

    That was the most emotional I have ever seen obama. The poor guy really has some daddy abandonment issues. That does help explain the atheism.

    December 10, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  24. Steve, New York City

    Holy cow – who is the prime minister of Denmark. I wouldn't mind being photographed next to her. I can't blame the first lady for seeming less than thrilled in this article's photo!!

    December 10, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  25. Robert

    MO looks like she is having fun with her husband flirting it up right next to her. Democrat's respect woman. NOT!

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
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