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. teri

    I believe the president's behaviors were immature, inappropriate, and self centered. He was at a state funeral for a respected former leader. You do not take "sellfies" at a funeral, for God's sake.. Obama acted in very poor taste. Hopefully, this will not reflect too badly on our country- we already have too much damage to repair to America's reputation. Shame on Mr Obama for displaying such juvenile behaviors.

    December 11, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  2. Brad

    Can't believe some of you are defending this. After everything this President has put the American people through, now he is taking selfies at a memorial service? It's a celebration yet thousands were mourning and crying in the rain?

    Not to mention that he is flirting with another woman in front of his WIFE. Bill Clinton would be proud.

    December 11, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  3. R.

    Totally inappropriate behavior – self indulgent when the day belonged to Mandella and honoring him. This is embarrassing. At least Michelle stayed out of it – good for her.

    December 11, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  4. MickeyOregon

    I can hear Michelle now: "I've never been so embarrassed! They're right, you understand NOTHING about being the President of America!"

    December 11, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  5. Rose Roby-Spencer

    Lets set this straight. The seating arrangement is all off! The prime minister's wife have no business being sandwiched between the President and her husband, she should have sat near Michelle, or on the other side of her husband. So world, I am not trying to be picky but it is what it is. Wrong seating arrangement.

    December 11, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  6. truthstingz

    another annoying trend of self-absorption, selfies, along with photo bombing... i have a new trend, i coined it and it's my invention, however, feel free to use it globally! selfies of photo bombing people doing their selfies!!! not only a good challenge, but the pictures and angles could lead to some interesting internet puzzles to put them together... enjoy!

    December 11, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  7. IQ129

    In poor taste to do this at a memorial service. Grow UP, Barry, Helle and David. Tacky.

    December 11, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  8. Jim Steele

    What a jerk! (or jerks - not to leave out the other individuals.) Kudos to Michele for showing some class!

    December 11, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  9. Marcus (from...?)

    Sniffit – "Rudyard Kipling" – I'm not so sure quoting the man who wrote "The White Man's Burden" is such a great idea in this context.
    In spite of his most controversial poem still earn him some (probably) deserved bashing, Kipling was a great poet and even if the 'man' (or 'woman' if you allow me) in the 'If...' poem was supposed to be 'white' (and only that) in Kipling's eyes... that doesn't means that we have to follow his wishes on that specific matter.

    PS: I checked what was that hush-hush stuff about the Brazilians and (for them) foreign diplomats on their land.
    Counter-espionage, their secret service got suspicious that American, Iranian and Russian diplomats (among others) were actually spies in disguise and put them under surveillance for a while, until they found out that they all were indeed diplomats.
    Not the least close to what the NSA did to Mrs. Roussef.

    December 11, 2013 10:57 am at 10:57 am |
  10. Jeff

    Every funeral in my family that I have attended has been bittersweet, but we've always taken pictures at them. It's still a reunion of family and friends. I don't see why people are fussing about this.

    December 11, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  11. hjc

    Our president: He's got culture, just like yogurt !!

    December 11, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  12. ricke1949

    Grow up. How teenage.

    December 11, 2013 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  13. mpgunner

    Even though Obama doesn't have a clue how to govern he can sure flirt. It is all about him, right? So much for "getting it".

    December 11, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  14. deb0155

    Well, apparently Michelle wasn't impressed. He looks like he's flirting with the Danish Prime Minister with his wife sitting next to him! What a joke of a president we have!

    December 11, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  15. Ted Barnes

    That's your story? This grotesque and immature act gets no comment other than "hey, look... Michelle wants no part of the selfie. Hmmmm' Thanks CNN for reminding all of us how in the tank you are for Obama. What if it was George Bush? I'm quite certain the story would have been critical and full of insults. You're not news.

    December 11, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  16. Laurie

    This has probably already been said, but I feel that Mandela himself would find it amusing.

    December 11, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  17. Slipthalo

    Perhaps all of you need to read/hear the statement from the gentleman who took these pictures as it refutes all the 'assumptive' guessing

    December 11, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  18. Kenman

    Just more embarrassing moments from the classless narcissist that proved in the last election that there are enough deliberately ignorant, dependent, and indifferent American "voters" to fear for the future of our great nation!

    December 11, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  19. geckopelli

    Sam Jackson said it best. At least act presidential, you schmuck!
    You. Mr. Obama, are an embarrassment to Americans everywhere.

    December 11, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  20. neoritter

    As crass or impolite as it may seem to perform a selfie at a memorial, particularly for a celebrated individual like Mandela, this is a good thing. Good politics and compromise rest on the ability of leaders to see their rivals and partners as fellow humans rather than fellow leaders. It allows them to realize that both have valid wants and needs; it helps foster truthful and honest relations. These are already allies, but continued good relations is something that requires continuous work.

    December 11, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  21. VJ

    Why this is an issue at the first place???? Who cares..

    December 11, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  22. smko


    December 11, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  23. critical thinking

    I take my que from Michelle, she doesn't look amused by the President's behavior.

    Unhappy wife, unhappy life.

    December 11, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  24. hefailed

    To John Scommo – Yes, it is worth an article. While social media is a part of our lives, there are also social restrictions that come with this technology. Even movie theaters, churches, weddings, etc. ask you to silence cell phones out of courtesy and respect. Here, we have 3 world leaders, one of them the POTUS, at a memorial service and depending on your point of view, carrying on like high school kids who apparently think this would be a cool time to take a selfie. Like you, people have their point of view as to the appropriateness of the moment. Just looking at the photo and knowing the purpose of the gathering, I'd say we have 3 world leaders engaging in some pretty selfish, egotistical and immature behavior. Yes – worth and article and the criticism the photo generated.

    December 11, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  25. Reason & Logic

    People who say Michelle was upset at how her husband behaved are just plain wrong. While the party of three acted like preteens, Michelle sat dignified with respect and she obviously swapped seats so her husband didn't have to climb over her upon returning from his speech. People try to read more than it is into what was just a split second reference in time.

    December 11, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
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