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 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. JulieMS

    Rude, self centered, big ego. Not considerate of where he was and why. So immature and childish. It's always about him. That's been his whole presidency, one big 8 year campaign about, look at me, I'm so great. Pride before the fall.

    December 11, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  2. David

    Clearly the so called 'journalists' at CNN still think they are back in junior high school. This is the silliest excuse yet for "news". Edward R. Murrow is rolling over in his grave .... again!!

    December 11, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  3. puzzled

    Is this really news? wow

    December 11, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  4. Name

    People should worry less about the selfies this man takes and worry more about what he's doing to the country

    December 11, 2013 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  5. DanaPointer

    Really? Slow news day or what! Who the fluff cares. Get over it. Look, I'm no fan of Obama, but to get all flipped out over this... you guys are reaching.

    December 11, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  6. Debby K

    Once again, Obama shows his true "selfie", arrogant and narcistic, clueless about the importance of the office of the President of the United States of America! Did Obama attend the service out of respect for Mandela or was Obama there for his own political gain? Americans wake up...the world is laughing at us – unfortunately at this time in history with this man as President rightly so.

    December 11, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  7. james

    If Obama did it then it is acceptable. The leftist media will hail this photo session as being greater than the end of WWII.

    December 11, 2013 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  8. Cionna

    Oh FFS. It was a FIVE HOUR memorial service and it was more like a mardi gras party. It's all in the context, people. SMARTEN UP. Read the article on Mashable, and then make your ignorant comments.

    December 11, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |

    Obama takes selfie with British, Danish prime ministers.............First Lady Michelle Obama could be seen sitting nearby, clearly not taking part in the photo op......


    December 11, 2013 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  10. Dougiwe Majoma

    Did you see the quality of the event?!? It was a spectacle, and not in a good way. She was probably just figuring out just what it means to be REALLY African!

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  11. Tom

    Really: You seem to be the only fool. You should know that this event was not a funeral. The funeral was the next day.
    So get your facts straight before you continue to make a fool of yourself.

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  12. Mike the American

    Wasn't CNN doing an extremely judgmental piece on funeral selfies the other day? Going to have a hard time with this one.

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  13. jonny

    not worth my time to comment on another stupid move by our so called leader.

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  14. Walter

    All 3 of them look like disrepsectful junior high kids who are part of an elitist clique. I give Michelle props for looking like the disgusted mom who has had enough of her impetuous child of a husband. Here is your president America, the celebrity you have made him. Hopefully we'll get a leader in 2016 and not another narcissist.

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  15. DanaPointer

    p.s. – maybe if more of our world leaders got along this well, we'd have a more peaceful world.

    December 11, 2013 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  16. What Now

    People in the US need to realize that other cultures deal with events differently. To make an ordeal out of a brief moment is ridiculous and childish. The hatred and disrepect of this President knows no bounds. Quit labeling everyone and everything that others do by your own cultural biases.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  17. Rosa

    Seriously? this is news? Come on people get a life. Taking pictures at a memorial service is a non event.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  18. NorCalMojo

    That is hilarious.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  19. concernedGrndma

    The president will be more remembered for this photograph than for anything he spoke at the funeral.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  20. dajowi

    Michelle has her typical "mad at the world look" but I think in this case it's mad at Obama.

    The sombre decorum of the occasion wasn't respected by our president – or the others. What a disgrace.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  21. miguel

    Those who are defending obama ask yourself this – if this was a loved one would you be having a good time and taking selfies?

    The President should know better.

    December 11, 2013 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  22. Baffled

    Why is this news?

    December 11, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  23. mr

    What losers. To act like teenagers at such an important event. Yikes. Our president.....

    December 11, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  24. Troy

    This is about how mad Michelle is that her husband seems to be flirting with white woman

    December 11, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  25. WaKe

    What an embarrassment. President Obama I have no doubt was scolded for this one by Michelle. Michelle, thank you for acting the way the President SHOULD HAVE at a funeral for a great man. Amateurism at its best/worst.

    December 11, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
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