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.



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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. Kathy, AZ

    I see absolutely no problem with it. I think Mandela would have loved that everyone - including world leaders – are laughing, talking & having a good time at his memorial. Especially if it brings the world closer together.

    December 11, 2013 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  2. Aubrey

    First of all, the event was not a funeral!! If in between other heads of state speaking you want to have a photo taken with other leaders....what the hell is wrong with that? People are so wrapped up with themselves it's unbelievable. Talking about being disrespectful, the names that people are calling our President is disrespectful and tasteless. These people should look in their mirrors and see how classless THEY are.

    December 11, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  3. NoBrow

    The funeral is Sunday for all you morans!!

    December 11, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  4. George Dixon

    Looked like they were at Paul Wellstone's funeral

    December 11, 2013 10:14 am at 10:14 am |
  5. Riverwalker

    Tasteless and ridiculous that the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth can be so juvenile as to partake in an open mouthed, laughing "selfie" at a memorial service. Same goes for Helle and Cameron. Big juvenile's lacking reverence.

    December 11, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  6. this is for Really?

    So 'Really?' you've never taken photos at a funeral? or joked before at one? obviously you have never been to one as they aren't as depressing as you might think. But then again i forgot you are perfect and a prime example of what humans should be

    December 11, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  7. SheepInWolfClothing

    All about me all about me, look I'm the president of the United States I do what i want.

    December 11, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  8. hiimmels

    Well that's embarrassing. Team Michelle!

    December 11, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  9. Scott

    He needs to learn to be a leader and not a celebrity

    December 11, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  10. Chris

    How embarrassing...were they at a memorial service for one of the most influential civil rights warriors of the 20th century or were they are a New Kids On The Block Reunion Concert.....geesh.

    Kudos to the first lady for rising above the immaturity and showing the proper grace and dignity such an event deserves.

    December 11, 2013 10:16 am at 10:16 am |
  11. Anonymous

    obama is no different than all the other presidents dating back to carter. selfish is more like it. the last 3 should be in jail.

    December 11, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  12. John Scommo

    I don't know what all this ranting is about. Social media has become part of our daily lives for those who like it or don't like it. So the president took a picture with other leaders and the public explodes. Is that even worth turning into an article? The real problem lies with the public.....everyone is quick to criticize before examining the situation for its real context. We have bigger problems we should be focusing on than this.

    December 11, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  13. Mpini Walezala

    I like it when people feel good about themselves by pointing a finger at someone.

    December 11, 2013 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  14. JD

    Wow Michelle is not happy.. So she swaps seats apparently to tell Her husband to behave.. and he sits there like he did nothing wrong.. Wonder if that night went well..

    December 11, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  15. Chris

    Just because American's don't get the concept of a "wake" (a CELEBRATION of the life of the deceased–yes, a party) doesn't mean that what he is participating in is inappropriate. In fact, it is absolutely appropriate given the atmosphere. Many countries celebrate the passing of the deceased with a party. Americans need to get over our "American-Centered" notions of how people ritualize death.

    December 11, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  16. mannyv

    She's upset because her husband is flirting with a blonde woman.

    December 11, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  17. GetOverItAfricaIsBeautifulToo

    Cameron does not seem relaxed next to Obama...he is probably frustrated on the lack of the free world leadership from Obama...for Michelle I will just say may be to lighten up a bit could have been helpful...

    December 11, 2013 10:19 am at 10:19 am |
  18. Dave

    If this was at a football game or something I would have no problem with it but this is an embarrassing way to behave at a funeral by anybody. The fact that he is President just makes it more embarrassing as he should have more class but clearly does not. I don't blame Michelle for being pissed on this occasion.

    December 11, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  19. Dave

    Michelle's reaction is so funny. I wouldn't care what famous couple this was. The atmosphere on AF-1 following the funeral must have been icy as hell.

    December 11, 2013 10:20 am at 10:20 am |
  20. zwinaa

    cool off everybody death is part of life and a celebration of eternity!!!

    December 11, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  21. KF

    ANY ONE who criticize the picture have ZERO idea of what was going on. The funeral was 4 HOURS, and ALMOST ALL in ATTENDANCE were singing and dancing in celebration of the life and accomplishments of Mandela!
    KNOW your facts before speaking!

    December 11, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  22. JP

    Ok, this is clearly an old boys club moment, even though the Danish PM is clearly a woman. Michelle is "the mad black woman" as she was called last night on MSNBC. This is her gaffe, not the President's. The first lady is supposed to back up her man and play along. She is the one who looks like a 2 year old who did not get her way here. He needs to bitch slap her upside the head in the limo and show her who pays the bills. Maybe she would smile some more if she didn't realize that in 3 years, their careers will be OVER!

    December 11, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  23. cc423

    People need to calm down. This was NOT a funeral. It was a raucous and jubilant celebration. There were bands performances, dancers adn speakers. This was NOT a solemn funeral.

    December 11, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  24. A Matter of Faith

    I find it interesting that there are 3 leaders shown taking selfies, but people are only criticizing Obama.... People relax... it's ok to take advantage of a photo op when it's presented even if it is our President. He is allowed to be human! Relax!

    December 11, 2013 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  25. pulstar40

    Totally out of line at a memorial service or funeral. Show some respect! Take the pictures at the luncheon afterwards. I don't care who you are, what your race is, what religion you are, or what planet you are dignified and show some compassion and respect.

    December 11, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
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