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. CP in MN

    Tacky & inappropriate. There is a time & place for "selfies", even for world leaders, but a memorial service is not the place.

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  2. Lilly

    So people can't have a laugh? They r dancing in the streets in South Africa laughing and almost like a party that's how they celebrated his death! It's their culture, stop bashing the president and acting like u all innocent of anything.

    December 11, 2013 10:37 am at 10:37 am |
  3. Pass

    For the first time in her life she is not proud of her husband

    December 11, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  4. Baldie74

    It was a memorial service and posing for a selfie is not cool. Mandela was a man who deserved respect! Now for others who don't see it as being inappropriate, let's pretend President Bush was the one in the selfie, how much flack would he have received???

    December 11, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  5. davecu

    For the first time, I'm proud of our First Lady!

    December 11, 2013 10:39 am at 10:39 am |
  6. Cmon Man

    Not to blow this out of proportion, but it is symptomatic of his entire ops and teleprompters. Although, I'm sure he was giddy at the prospect of escaping the Obamacare debacle and declining poll numbers for a few days. Let's party! Sure he got an earful from Michelle but it's unlikely anyone else in his inner circle will even tell him what a fool he made of himself.

    December 11, 2013 10:40 am at 10:40 am |
  7. Brian

    A funeral is a celebration of an individual's life achievements and a time to gather and remember. I am sure every person who attended this funeral celebration recognized the significance of the event. I am quite certain that there were many pictures taken and it really isn't a big deal that individuals who are friends might take a picture together. What's the difference if the picture is taken as a "selfie" versus someone else taking a picture of them. I think we need to stop drumming up things to be outraged about and channel true outrage to the issues that really matter. Seems so ridiculous that we have to constantly have conversations around things such as selfies and hand shakes. Mr. Mandela shook the hand of those who had inprisoned him for 27 years. I think our world leaders should be willing to offer the same courtesy to our enemies when in a situation such as this. Yet another item that some choose to make in to something when there is actually nothing.

    December 11, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  8. Pam Pereira

    I read an interview with the photographer that took this pic. He said that the ceremony was going on for 2 hours so far and EVERYONE in the stadium was celebrating Mandela. They were dancing, singing, laughing etc. He also said that right before the pic was snapped the first lady was laughing with the other three in the pic. He also said that a picture can lie. She was not upset or mad. He said that there was nothing inappropriate in what they were doing because of the atmosphere there. He did state that this was Africa and that was how they celebrated this man. There was nothing morbid about the ceremony. Again so many people read the bold print and believe it. That is why this country is so screwed up. Please people, be more informed before you vote so you do not continue to be part of the downfall of this country!!!!

    December 11, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  9. MrApplesauce

    All these up tight evangelicals sure would have a hissy fit if they knew what Catholics do at their funerals... hint: It involves lots and lots of alcohol.

    December 11, 2013 10:41 am at 10:41 am |
  10. Henro

    Yeah, I'm sure they were all three just looking at a photo of Mandela and not taking a selfie. That one has to take the cake! If that's the case, maybe Mandela was in the nude then because whatever photo they were looking at, Michelle was not happy about it. You Obama worshipers just don't give up, do you?

    December 11, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  11. JL

    PATRICK EWING looks pissed

    December 11, 2013 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  12. Henro

    If they were looking at a photo and not taking a selfie as some have suggested, why then is the camera extended at arms length? Maybe they all need glasses!!!! ROFL C'mon people, you can't honestly be that stupid, can you?

    December 11, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  13. McRCN

    Best not to flirt with a better looking woman when you wife is sitting next to you.

    December 11, 2013 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  14. Bill

    I wonder if he will ask Thorning-Schmidt to prom?

    December 11, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  15. Bill in VA

    ,We had two things here that seemed to generate controversy. The Castro handshake and the selfie. The handshake was completely appropriate in the context of a world leader's memorial. No reason to be petty or to make a point at such a ceremony (I do admit to being totally perplexed over this country's treatment of Cuba through Democrat and Republcan adminstrations alike given the Cold Ward ended over 20 years ago). The selfie on the other hand was a completely classless act by a self absorbed person and toally inappropriate in the circumstance and, sadly. not really surprising.

    December 11, 2013 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  16. cliff dweller

    Typical of liberals finding nothing wrong, if it were Bush you would all be screaming to high heaven and dragging Sharpton and Jackson out of the woodwork.

    December 11, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  17. Mike in NYC

    To everyone who is putting down those upset with the President's actions .... perhaps you should start with the First Lady. She looks rather 'un-impressed' (to say the least) by her husband's actions.

    December 11, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  18. That's just crazy talk

    Who knows what's really going on there, but the pictures sure suggest the winds are blowing cold in the White House.

    December 11, 2013 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  19. Sherri

    I'm with Michelle. It was inappropriate to do at a funeral gathering. And inappropriate for a world leader to be acting this way when he was representing our country. I hope he catches lots of flack for this.

    December 11, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  20. Mike D

    Judging from the look on this wife's face, he was in for it when they got home. That's the face of "just wait until we get home." I bet that smile of his went away really quick soon after that memorial.

    December 11, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  21. Fred G.

    You're an embarrassment, Mr. President. Please put on your big-boy pants and make us proud!

    December 11, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  22. Nancy Shinabargar

    Wow! All the smiles, instead of reflection on the 30 years of suffering and struggle of Nelson Mandela. I guess the Obama Presidency can be summed up in four words: "It's all about ME."

    December 11, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  23. EncinoMan

    Normally, I would agree this is inappropriate for a funeral. However, this wasn't your typical funeral. It was held in a soccer stadium full of fans and supporters. It sounded like the World Cup. Now, that's not your typical funeral either. Also, I can't imagine world leaders doing that at the funeral of, say....a sitting President. However, Mandela was 95 and this was more than an expected death. Circumstances are everything and considering the gravitasse and meaning of such a historical gathering, I think we can cut him a little slack.

    December 11, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  24. jake

    Its not just the picture, It is also the slapping of the knee laughing during the funeral of someone he claims to have cared so much about.

    December 11, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  25. tomj fan

    wow...this is a wouldn't let your children act up would you? and michelle should be upset...they are acting like they are in a bar & she's looking for a man for the nite .... geez

    December 11, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
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