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 Beyoncé– 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. sixthromeo

    It was a celebration of a life well lived and lived for 95 years; more than most humans will live. This wasn't grave side while priests were blessing the coffin and open ground. What is a "selfie" is the ignorance of people who lie about their taking offense at this; for them, it is likely that none of their lives are worth living so they complain about someone else.

    December 11, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  2. ems1008

    Without a doubt... TASTELESS. Mrs. Obama obviously didn't agree with what was going on. You don't do that at someone's funeral and I don't care what decade or century it's in. World leaders behaving like thoughtless teenagers? Now THAT is not a surprise. I still can't believe a guy like Obama is our president.

    December 11, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  3. JanB

    Seriously????? The people who object to this harmless act need to focus on something more important like families who are doing with less food stamps (while fat congressmen got rich farm subsidies – yes, that's tax payer's money, as well) or families without health insurance. If they want to demonstrate compassion they need to address more serious topics.

    December 11, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  4. Mara Tam

    This was not a church ceremony. This was in a stadium. CNN - please check to see how other dignitaries were behaving. Other presidents, etc. Get over it!

    December 11, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  5. Malory Archer


    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!


    Considering the party atmosphere of the day, I would have no problem with it. Beats the heck out of the drinking, crying and fighting that took place at my late (Irish) great-grandmother's funeral!

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  6. DrBob57

    Equally amusing is the defense that Obama was joining other in celebrating Mandela's life and just having a good time. Look at the pictures, folks. If you think Obama was thinking about Mandela while he was yucking it up with the Danish Prime Minister, you clearly have problems reading nonverbals. If it was so acceptable to be partying during the funeral, why to all the other dignitaries and other leaders in the photo around Obama look so serious? Get real folks, he was acting like an adolescent at the wrong time and place. Big deal? No. Stupid? Definitely, Yes.

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  7. Glen

    Is there nothing better to talk about. They were at a memorial celebrating the live of Nelso Mandela...yes celebrating. This was not the funeral. All around the stadium people were dancing; singing and laughing. Nothing wrong with what was done here by 3 leaders.

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  8. ru serious

    ....tacky. Can you imagine the uproar had this been Pres. Bush?!

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  9. Mara Tam

    and – this was not DURING the ceremony, but BEFORE

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  10. teri037

    It wasn't a party, but from all the photos surfacing it seems as those Obama and the Danish PM were enjoying each others company tremendously. Perhaps they should have just got a room.

    December 11, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  11. steve a

    This was not a case of joyously celebrating the man it was a selfish act of silliness not befitting the office of the presidency. Perhaps he should learn to respect the very office he sits in.

    December 11, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  12. Mandy

    It was a memorial and a celebration of Mandela's life. It was not a sombre event – it was meaningful and beautiful and brought so many people together. I don't think there is any disrespect whatsoever in this tension breaking moment of leaders being human. If anybody understood leaders being human it was Mandela himself.

    December 11, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  13. Steveo

    "Nobody cares"? Really? Explain the last picture then! You know the one in which the FLOTUS exchanged seats with her hubby. That must have been some plane ride backhome!

    December 11, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  14. Sniffit

    Stadium full of dancing, singing, cheering people all taking photos left and right and Obama...*gasp*...dares to take a photo. Oh the horror!!!

    You know what's tasteless? The CNN/GOP/Teatroll symbiote trying to manufacture a nontroversy with this.

    December 11, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  15. What a waste!

    Are people finally getting a sense of why this President is such a failure – Shaking hands with Castro, this kind of garbage at an event where world leaders are suppose to come together and celebrate the life of a man that was a "class act". Obamacare, IRS, Beghazi, Iran – etc. etc. This is not the United States , and this man is not suitable to call himself the leader of the United States. I'm sorry, but this is embarrassing.

    December 11, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  16. patty51

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

    Malory she is not my President. I don't care what she does she is not representing America. The President did not have to participate.

    December 11, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  17. Steveo

    @Mara Tam

    This was not a church ceremony. This was in a stadium. CNN – please check to see how other dignitaries were behaving. Other presidents, etc
    Might I suggest picture #6?

    December 11, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  18. Jeff Brown in Jersey

    More red meat for the Obama haters... Thanks CNN!

    December 11, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  19. s

    if you spend a minute upset about this or even caring in the least, I feel sorry for you

    December 11, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  20. JeffreyRO5

    CNN sure knows how to throw red meat to the Obama Derangement Syndrome crowd!

    December 11, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  21. Linda MCGEORGE

    Let's see...chomping on gum at his inaugural parade – and a selfie during a memorial service...Tasteless for the "leader" of a free nation – let's be honest, it is tasteless whether you support his policies or not

    December 11, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  22. DarqueSide

    “I took these photos totally spontaneously, without thinking about what impact they might have. At the time, I thought the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium.”

    “I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture. But photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance.”

    -Roberto Schmidt (photographer)

    December 11, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  23. AtheistHuman

    Why take a picture with the Danish PM? Denmark is one the worst human rights violators in the modern world. They deport helpless children, and even Danish citizens that have married foreigners without mercy. Google it, its disgusting.

    December 11, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  24. Malory Archer


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


    He was tapping her personal cell phone. Probably heard something personal and believed he was offering his condolences. He's so clueless he probably thought the wire tap on her phone was a party line!

    December 11, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  25. Loe

    Lmao, He's an embarrassment

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