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. Begone

    Seriously, quite frankly most of these folks making a fuss out this really have no idea what Nelson Madela was all about. He would have wanted people to be happy at his funeral. Just saying.

    December 11, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  2. Justin

    What's the big deal?

    December 11, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  3. mbane

    Thumbs up to the Danish for electing an attractive and intelligent woman for office, something we have never done!

    December 11, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  4. WaKe

    Chris, funeral's are celebrations! Regardless of the context of the service, it was a memorial for the man. Show respect Mr. President.

    December 11, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  5. mr

    At least our first lady acted appropriately. Thank god she sat between the two toddlers to control their behavior.

    December 11, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  6. Your duly elected official

    It seems as if everyone was having a good time except Michelle. After all, this is a funeral. And no one has fun at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 10:30 am at 10:30 am |
  7. Dan

    Why is he smiling ? this is a funeral right? of a person he claims to care about? or was he lying again? no tears but smiling and having a good time = lying!

    December 11, 2013 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  8. johnk

    Please look at the body language of Obama in pic 7. He is leaning forward. This shows greater interest and concern as to what is being said and seen. The others are not. As to them taking pics of one another this was hopefully in between the event and I see no harm in improving relations between heads of state if this was so. I don't even think Mandela would have minded as to their enjoyment. It is to bad Obama's wife is so stoic.

    December 11, 2013 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  9. Erik

    For the people calling this "selfish" or "self-absorbed", I would love to hear your reasoning on that. Honestly.

    December 11, 2013 10:31 am at 10:31 am |
  10. Mymy

    Those calling this disrespectful must not understand that to the African's this is a celebration of life, a time to sing and dance and celebrate their deceased leader.. but if it makes you feel better to be ignorant or the facts, continue on . lol

    December 11, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  11. Dan

    you really have to be an Obama Cult member to be defending the desecration of Nelson Mandela's funeral. I mean really?

    December 11, 2013 10:32 am at 10:32 am |
  12. Richard

    I'd bet Michelle knows exactly what the questioned sign interpreter was saying, or at least can put words to his hand movements.

    December 11, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  13. jeff van wieren

    We can and should do so much better.

    December 11, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  14. Spaz

    Obama being Obama. Nothing new here, clownish behavior on and off the playing field.

    December 11, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  15. Mike

    The media can zero in on the dumbest of details. The crowds were happy, singing and dancing, celebrating the life of Mandela. Why shouldn't these three join in and take a photo that will remind them of the event?

    December 11, 2013 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  16. Dude

    No big deal. Mandela's funeral was not a sad occasion, South Africans were celebrating the man's long and accomplished life.

    December 11, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  17. USA Going Really Really Down

    Obama will not be getting "some" while sleeping on the sofa.

    December 11, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  18. Logictox

    I'm not a fan of the president but I don't get all the press about this. Can you imagine be photographed anytime your in public and not having a few of them not look like they may be flattering in one way or another?

    December 11, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  19. Danish Rick

    Thorning-Schmidt took the "selfie", Obama doesn't have an IPhone. The Mandela funeral was a proud celebration of a great man; if a few heads of state enjoyed the occasion, then good for them, I'm sure Mandela would approve. BTW, no fuss nor outrage in danish media about this.

    December 11, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  20. Chris

    This is not news. CNN has gone the way of garbage "reporting".

    December 11, 2013 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  21. Deserttrek

    so whats new? two self absorbed, egotistical bigots are acting childish. nothing new since 2008.

    and poeple siad Bush made the USA look bad. no people, barryboy, makes the USA look bad.

    December 11, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  22. BFree

    Little blonde hottie messin' with her man!!! I bet he was in big trouble later :O)

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  23. RobS

    If there'd be more of this there'd be fewer problems in the world. Sadness is evil.

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  24. joseph Carlson

    that is more of the guy we WANT to see.. someone real not some fake tool like his wife

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  25. Mike

    Why is this news? If this occurred during a speech, than I can see being disappointed with POTUS. Otherwise, don't we have better things to discuss?

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
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