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. Gene

    I think that sometimes the media runs out of stuff to talk about. That is what I would call a non-story.

    December 11, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  2. CherryMama

    Keep it classy, Obama!

    December 11, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  3. mcwreiole

    The leader of the free world behaving like a moonstruck teenager. This President never fails to embarrass this nation. He is turning into Joe Biden.

    December 11, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  4. GMD

    hahaha – mrs. obama is reacting the way any wife would who's husband is getting to cozy with a beautiful woman...pissed! she is obviously annoyed and her expression definitely states that. yes, he could've showed a little more restraint in that photo-op but she showed him by sitting between them while still maintaining the same facial expression. too funny!

    December 11, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  5. Pat

    And, we're surprised at this?

    December 11, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  6. John USA

    Obama has no class.

    December 11, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  7. pokey5735

    Michelle showed more dignity than that nit wit husband of hers. How pathetic is that?

    December 11, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  8. Merica

    You people need to get off your high horses. Seriously, I've read some of the dumbest comments here.

    December 11, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  9. registered voter

    No big deal. I've been to wakes throughout my lifetime and have seen some people sad and somber while others laugh and talk. Again, this is no big deal. First Lady Michelle Obama chose not to indulge in the conversation, and seemed to be focused on the service. Again NO BIG DEAL! P.S. for all of the haters from 2008 through 2016, you will always hate President Obama until his term is up in 2016. This country has really shown it's prejudice against this President simply because of the color of his skin and will not accept the fact and totally overlook the fact that his mother was WHITE, which actually makes him bi-racial.

    December 11, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  10. FaustMart

    That last pic is of a guy who is absolutely in the dog house with the wif. Ha!

    December 11, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  11. McLovin

    Obama-the new standard for Epic Fail

    December 11, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  12. Buckn

    Obama has no integrity, no moral fiber and no respect for anyone other than himself.
    He has shown himself to be a liar on not one, but many occasions.
    He is a self-righteous egoist; a small man with delusions of grandeur, occupying the office of giants.
    He does a disservice to his role as President of the U.S., and has brought shame to this country.
    He is a socialist. He is a racist.
    He is a rabid wolf hiding in the guise of a dove. He is a hypocrite. He will shake your hand with a smile on his face, while brandishing a knife in his other hand with which to stab in your back.

    December 11, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  13. AEP Woodhead

    Mandela would be smiling! Republicans are now reduced to grade school blame game tactics, since they have NO TRACTION on anything substantial!!! Are they going as stupid in the British Press? Finally, Helle is easy on the eyes.....

    December 11, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  14. Gerry Kenney

    I hate to say this, but I have a very LARGE family and we live all around the seems the only thing that brings us together is a funeral. When my grandmother passed away, the family gathered for a portrait because we knew hit would be years before we ever say each other again. Just recently my aunt passed away, and my sister posted pictures of all of my cousins for me because I couldn't attend. I don't know why it is inappropriate...we have always done this to hold the moment I suppose.
    As for laughing...when my father passed away, we told the funniest stories about him and we all laughed. There is nothing wrong with this picture. Funerals bring folks together. It is sad, but we all move forward.

    December 11, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  15. Bubba Ray

    Somehow I just can't come up with enough energy to care about this in the least.

    December 11, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  16. dot8

    Wow! an unprofessional political move at the wrong place and wrong time.

    December 11, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  17. 2bhonest

    Typical Obama defenders. Make it about race.

    December 11, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  18. Belinda

    She not only traded places but she sat with her back turned towards the Danish PM. Sorry but that was completely unprofessional by all involved. Michelle was the ONLY one who was thinking rationally and acting respectfully.

    December 11, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  19. Anonymous

    hey c'mon now.....the white chick was just given an Obama-phone and Barack was just helpin' her – right?

    Michelle definitely is not amused with the 'chillin' that Barack was doin' with that girl, huh?

    so stately and presidential, Barack, after all you are the 'leader of the free world' and you are free to do whatever you want – including making a fool of yourself in front of your wife on the international stage! priceless!

    December 11, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  20. anthony ta

    Instead of admit he made a mistake anf move on from it, the libetsld once again blame on other things such as racist . When the idiot people like that learn how to respect the other

    December 11, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  21. LauriM

    Good grief. Did any of you complainers even read the article? It was a celebration of Mandela, not a church service. You people are just desperately looking for something to complain about regarding Obama. Pathetic.

    December 11, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  22. diane

    Figures, he has absolutely no idea how to be president of the US.

    December 11, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  23. Whatup

    Shameful Obama...simply shameful...

    December 11, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  24. ole geezer

    My wife has Michelle Obamas look when some flirt comes on to me a social functions! Barack should smarten up or else. PS I didn't ,she's now my X wife!

    December 11, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  25. hefailed

    To answer the headline – absolutely tasteless

    December 11, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
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