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.



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. DR Zumba

    Get over it!! I do not see any of you complaining about the boy that killed 3 people, while driving drunk and was given probation. Who cares that the president took a picture.. Get over it!!

    December 11, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  2. DCT

    Do you really have nothing else to complain about? Three world leaders took a photo together. Mandela would be giggling at all this nonsense. He was known to have quite a sense of ironic humor. Explain to me again how the world is Obama's fault again?

    December 11, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  3. mudbirdy

    The "distance shot" #6 on this story, tells the tale. All of the people sitting in front, beside and behind this group are somber looking and one guy is casting a sideways glance as though he wanted to shush them. World leaders are supposed to be just that – leaders – not act like 14 years olds on a first date.

    December 11, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  4. Bob

    It's both: Harmless and tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  5. mrl

    completely tasteless – this was a memorial service – and obama and other leaders were acting like disrespectful children playing around at a concert. how RUDE!

    December 11, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  6. aPersonOfNoInterest

    I am glad we stopped talking about the economy, healthcare, immigration, budget, judicial appointments, drone strikes, NSA wiretapping, and unemployment to take time to talk about this very important issue of Obama taking a selfie. I think we should have a congressional inquiry looking into what type of phone he used. I bet it was made in China (a known communist regime). We still havent talked about black suit or his blue tie. This is so last year. Also, if he's wearing an american flag pin, its not NEARLY big enough to be seen. Further, he has michelle to his left keeping his sword arm free. Does this mean he doesn't trust everyone else around him enough to keep michelle to his right and less protected. What kind of man is he? We should be looking more in to these very important issues.

    December 11, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
  7. Kevin

    The picture above sums up the Obama presidency very well. Kudos to Mrs. Obama.

    December 11, 2013 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  8. pollito

    Undignified of the POTUS, as in many other times before, also extremely disrespectful but no surprise, he never deserved his position.

    December 11, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  9. mudbirdy

    If you saw "leaders" behaving this way at President Kennedy's funeral, how would you feel then? That was also an "international" memorial service.

    December 11, 2013 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  10. Jason

    Any person with a sense of propriety wouldn't even do this at a family funeral, let alone a state funeral. POTUS was representing our entire nation and he makes us look like a 13 year old girl with no manners. We elected him, TWICE, and we are getting what we deserve... ridicule and loss of international status.

    December 11, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  11. movingon

    who cares?! At least world leaders like and enjoy this president. Remember the awkward neck with between bush and the german chancellor? Exactly!

    December 11, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  12. jaony

    Liberal media tactic, get the public to focus on the non-issues in order to hide the real ones

    December 11, 2013 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  13. Malory Archer

    Look at the photo people! The President isn't the one holding the camera – the woman seated next to him is the one taking the selfie!

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  14. Name carl

    Harmless. We love Michelle and President. Obama.

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  15. Learn to Fish

    well, at least he's consistent.

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  16. jayuya2

    It was enlightening and inspiring to hear the South Africans say that many of them were not concerned with mourning his death, instead they were celebrating his transition. This would be the best way to honor a man who lived a very long life and that had contributed so much to his people and his planet. Given that spirit... laughter, dancing, stories, brotherhood, hugs, friendship, handshakes and selfies were all welcome.

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  17. sjdsh

    Odrona shook hands with neighbor Raul Castro on the same day he ordered a drone strike that killed four more civilians.
    Guess which one he got criticized for by US ?

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  18. Malory Archer


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


    The only thing you childish rant "proves" is that YOU need to have your eyes examined!

    December 11, 2013 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  19. OK

    Hasn't CNN got something better to talk about than a selfie? And I think the First Lady is more concerned about her hubby sitting next to the hot Danish PM.

    December 11, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  20. js65

    This president simply does not have any class. Even his low class wife knows better than that. He is an embarrassment to the United States. The other clowns in the picture are no better. It's like kids giggling in a church. Our youth today are fine with this. It shows where our nation has gone.

    December 11, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  21. Anonymous

    OMG who cares? It was not a "funeral" as per say...what some whiners here think. It was a celebration of Mandela's life. It wasn't a somber affair. Honestly whether he is a President or not, if he wants to take "selfies" let him. Stop whining and complaining about lame stuff. My god what is this world coming too..Stop being so uptight people!

    December 11, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  22. Pete Huttlinger

    Why in the hell does anyone reprint anything that Rush Limbaugh says? He is an absolutely worthless human being. I see no value in his existence other than to spread hate. And I see no value in hate.

    December 11, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  23. Malory Archer


    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.


    Yeah, so tell that to the woman seated to the President's right who CLEARLY is the one holding the camera.

    December 11, 2013 11:42 am at 11:42 am |
  24. Lynda/Minnesota

    Well, whatever it was, CNN is going to milk it for all it is worth. Or not worth.

    December 11, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  25. Carl

    Expected behavior from a Community Organizer in Chief

    December 11, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
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