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. matty

    what a joke this guy is

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  2. DrBob57

    I have to laugh at all the Obama apologists who think it's "no big deal." I'd love to see you try and explain that one to Michelle.

    December 11, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  3. Montster

    I think its a person having a good time. it shows you dont have to be different because your from another country... its pretty kool... why would it be tasteless just because some newspaper journalist put out there in that sense? its normal people being human...

    December 11, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  4. jonjojr

    harmless from a 15 year old, tasteless from the leader of the free world.

    December 11, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  5. lvgirldc

    Last I checked a selfie was a picture you take of yourself. 3 hands on a phone is not a selfie. We all know that is not the Presidents phone.. So why is it his fault that she wanted a picture of the President at the funeral. It is clearly her phone and asked the President to take a picture with him. As long as this man is President everything he will do is wrong..If he would have said no, the headlines would have been President Obama denied Prime Minister photo at the memorial for the person who stood for world peace..

    December 11, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  6. Tzeitel

    Etiquette rule #1: Don't play with your cell phone on a funeral!!!

    December 11, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  7. keeth

    Poor Americans, can't think out of our own little box. Here, we cry and we're solemn at funerals. In South Africa, they celebrate the life of the person with joyful noise, dancing, singing, laughing, and fun. These leaders were following the people of South Africa in celebrating and having a good a time. Haters gotta hate.

    December 11, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  8. Heather

    We're all forgetting something. This was meant to be a CELEBRATION of Nelson Mandela's life. In Cambodia they are dancing and partying to remember him. It's not SUPPOSED to be sad, and somber, and quiet. This service was also in a STADIUM, not a church or funeral home.

    December 11, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  9. Julian Assange

    Looks like Obama wants to do with the Danish Prime Minister EXACTLY what he does EVERY DAY with the people of the Middle East and North Africa... And he intends to use no Vaseline!

    December 11, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  10. Tammy

    Whether it was the President or anyone else, in my opinion a funeral or memorial service is not a place to be taking "selfies" while the service is going on, or telling jokes. When the service is over, that is a different story (although some might still say tacky).

    December 11, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  11. Thomas

    This was a celebration of life, not the funeral. There was singing, dancing and a happy remembrance. So, who cares?

    December 11, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  12. Max

    And this is the man representing a great nation,, and this is a classy way to pay tribute to Mandela,,, when the president act like this what do you expect from teenagers,,,, Obama America chose you as president I would not hire you to be my butler

    December 11, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  13. patty51

    The first lady too a picture of herself with her dog at her residence. Quite a bit different taking a picture of yourself at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  14. JB824

    It disturbs me that many people feel this is a "non-issue" and "do not see the problem" with this. This was a memorial service for a man who felt so passionate about a cause and his country that he was imprisoned, only to become one of the greatest leaders of our time. We should be appalled many of our World Leaders cannot take a couple hours out of their lives to pay respect to this man. I am guilty of capturing many things in my life and posting them on social media, but I have NEVER felt it appropriate to take a picture, even more a selfie, while paying tribute to someone I love. This was a country's leader, a husband, a father, a friend........if you are one of the many saying "Get over it," consider how you would feel if this was your father's memorial and people around you were laughing and taking selfies!

    December 11, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  15. Wade

    It only proves what most Humans with a brain already knew Obama is a child!

    December 11, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  16. sascha

    Seriously people a storm in a teacup – there clearly isn't any terrible disaster to put on the front page of the newspapers/sites today. For the most part Mandela's passing has been marked in SA by a celebration of his life. Have you not seen the dancing, singing, smiling faces all over the news? There were somber moments during the "memorial" yes, (it was NOT a funeral), but it I saw dozens and dozens of pictures of world leaders, celebrities and ordinary folk, laughing, smiling, joking and yes, taking selfies.

    December 11, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  17. patty51

    The first lady taking a picture of herself with her dog at her residency is different from taking a picture of yourself at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  18. Ray

    This was a celebration as well as a memorial. The Danish Prime Minister took the pic anyway. The Danes have a high "happy index". What do we have in the US? Be glad we don't have an uptight snob for a president. We have one who reaches out.

    December 11, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  19. Marilyn Murray

    you guys need to get a life! Read the photographers comments on MSN. The atmosphere was celebratory and the photograph completely in keeping with the mood. Seconds before this photo was taken, the first lady had been participating. Quit being so judgmental and give it a rest, it is getting old!

    December 11, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  20. Mark

    I can't wait for Dick Cheney's selfie at the Hague.

    December 11, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |

    It wasn't a funeral. It was a celebration. The crowds set the tone. In that light I see nothing to worry about.

    December 11, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  22. David

    Surprised they didn't stand in front of Mandela's coffin.

    December 11, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  23. TMZleasy

    By the title of the article I thought it was about CNN and their stupid focus on the President taking a picture. Do you guys not have enough news to overblow? Nelson Mandela was a life to celebrate. He brought people together to make his country strong again. Grow up CNN.

    December 11, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  24. anna

    As one of your readers said – WHO CARES

    After all they were not in a church or somewhere where it would have been inapproriate.

    Leave them alone!

    December 11, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  25. Bill

    Five years in office and this amateur still has no clue how to act Presidential.

    December 11, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
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