December 10th, 2013
12:04 PM ET
9 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. u laby

    nice to see obama having fun at a funeral. good job obama.

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  2. shorething

    Obama was just tapping their phones so the NSA can listen in.

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  3. Tommy G

    Brad - Why is this news?

    The President of the USA acting like a frat boy at a keg party while attending the biggest memorial service in history is news. What next from this clown? Stripping and streaking across the soccer field?

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  4. DJ

    Michelle looks overjoyed. LOL.

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  5. Never Gone' Happen MittensRobme

    ah, our president is taking a picture with other world I have to hate him some more!!'s just a picture just like a handshake. it takes so much anger to hate....just try take a chill pill and hug somebody. tell them that u love them my beloved gop tea potty folks. lol

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  6. K Mink

    It's possible they are looking at a picture, not taking a selfie. It looks more like that than anything. Judge much? All the shit we need to worry about and you people go on. No wonder the US is screwed.

    December 10, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  7. Ram Riva

    Fantastic!!!!....they're humans after all....she's very beautiful......who wouldn't take a selfie with her.....Michelle not so thrilled.....:LOL

    December 10, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  8. Sharky

    LOL Shocking and predictable, even at Mandela's memorial Obama makes it about himself through photos and his speech. Ugh that speech.

    December 10, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  9. Deshawn Thomas

    There is nothing wrong with taking a picture. Obamas legacy will speak for itself. He had nothing but respect for the late Nelson mandela. People stop all the criticizing ... My Lord We ARE HUMAN!!

    December 10, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  10. jkpalmdale

    Why am I not surprised, he made it about him. He did that on Rosa Parks day with the selfie of him on the empty bus, Pearl Harbor day with him at the USS Arizona. The man is such a Narcissist

    December 10, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  11. Mary

    Who says it's a selfie? Could they not have been looking at picture of Mandela? geez people

    December 10, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  12. ST

    World leaders are human being too. Rolling cameras around them every minute which goes by is ridiculous. I didn't see anyone in the stadium shedding a tear. It was all through singing and dancing. Why not leaders get a second to have a little fun among themselves?

    December 10, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  13. CGDoc

    Caption what Michelle is thinking.

    December 10, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  14. Javier

    HAHAHA! I hate selfies...

    December 10, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  15. Kevin

    Washington Post: "Nelson Mandela was memorialized in a boisterous stadium ceremony here Tuesday as a teacher and a racial healer, a transcendent figure who changed history and touched hearts in his native country and around the world....Scores of thousands of South Africans braved a pouring rain to join dozens of world leaders, including President Obama and many other heads of state, for a four-hour service filled with emotional tributes and joyous song".

    This was not a somber event. People were celebrating a life. No reason not to enjoy the company of colleagues and friends.

    December 10, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  16. mary

    Why is having fun with a person of the opposite gender, disrespecful. IT is 2013.... Its not like he is hiding his selfie? Why is this even an issue?

    December 10, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  17. mcwreiole

    Dear "Never GonaHappen...etc" I see you were obviously raised with the same lack of decorum as our President.

    December 10, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  18. SKinMD

    I said a week ago he;d be doing selfies at this funeral. The man has no common sense and obviously is overjoyed at thinking he is stepping into Mandela's shoes as a "world peace" leader. He is a sick, sick man.

    December 10, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  19. Ryan

    The question we should be asking ourselves is "Is this the single dumbest article in the history of journalism?"

    December 10, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  20. Jeff

    Michelle is one unfortunate looking woman. His term is almost up right?

    December 10, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  21. BostonStrong

    Obama, the Chicago city street slicker and nothing more....

    December 10, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  22. paul reynolds

    Have to Laugh recalling how Merkle recoiled in Disgust when the "Creepy" Dubya tried to touch her!!

    What a difference a REAL President can make!

    December 10, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  23. Rudy NYC


    The speeches were very difficult to hear and understand within the stadium. With members of the public at large celebrating and singing, the public address system was mostly drowned out, and mostly unintelligible without the crowd noises. At one point, they even had to stop and ask the crowd to try to keep it down, and to please stop their singing.

    December 10, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  24. Dominican mama 4 Obama

    I didn't see anyone in the stadium shedding a tear. It was all through singing and dancing. Why not leaders get a second to have a little fun among themselves?
    You know, that's a good point ST.
    We do forget that oftentimes funerals are a celebration of life and here at home they are also a sort of family reunion.
    You're quite correct in saying that the atmosphere in the stadium was one of joy and celebration.
    I too felt that he should look somber, as MIchelle does, but your post put things in a clearer perspective for me.
    The man is human after all.

    December 10, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  25. Maria

    It's a celebration of life. He has major respect for Mandela. People in Africa have been dancing and celebrating Mandela's legacy. Obama and the minster are all they took a selfie. Who care's! Go selfie your self and live on!

    December 10, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
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