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 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. 1CentFree

    Of course only the ignorant will make this all about Obama. It's NOT EVEN HIS camera and he's not even the one who requested the picture. They are in a STADIUM and NOT a funeral home. But yes, it's all his fault and he should be impeached. All this coming from people that could not care less about Mandela. Get a life people.

    December 11, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  2. HumanOnEarth

    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 disturbing.

    December 11, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  3. Malory Archer


    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.


    So the President should have made a scene, walked away and embarrassed her? Wow! Just..... wow.

    December 11, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  4. Ms. L

    Take your cultural blinders OFF already folks. This was a celebration of the life of a great man. Just because you might decide to remember your loved ones in a somber, morose fashion doesn't mean EVERYONE else does. Even the photographer who snapped the photo says that Mrs. Obama was NOT perturbed. It's just the way the moment was captured. She'd been laughing and enjoying herself, too.

    December 11, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  5. Jonathan Sabia

    Really? All of you that hinder the President because he took a photo with the Danish Prime Minister?
    1. She wanted to take the picture..
    2. It was her phone.
    3. I can guarentee ANY of you would want people to have fun and enjoy themselves at a celebration of life ceremony. Funeral.... HARDLY FOLKS. Everyone was dancing, smiling, having a joyous time, given there were moments of silence and rememberance.

    It's pathetic to see that because this man is President, he must take the heat for what the majority of you all consider, blasphemy. and for you incompetant beings.. Profane talk.

    One more thing.. If he had denied to take the picture, I guarentee you all would be hating him for this too. He also would have been in the news for denying another WORLD LEADER and PICTURE. NOT A SELFIE.

    You people make me sick.

    December 11, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  6. rs

    You know- an nearly all day celebration of life isn't meant to be dowdy or dreary- given the weather that 65,000 South Africans of all walks turned out to celebrate Mr. Mandela's life, there is bound to be some humor, and certainly unscripted moments. For me- I don't take "selfies"- and given the camera and the "selfie" image were the Netherland's PM's, I am not entirely sure why this involves Mr. Obama as such- yes, he is in the image, and yes, given the celebratory nature of the event, maybe the world leaders in that "selfie" want a memory or keepsake. Whatever. I am quite willing to bet there were many posting to Facebook, Tweeting and more as the event rolled by. Still better than walking out on another nation's leader attending that celebration. Perhaps this is the underlying issue- most of those attendees "got" why they were there- to be a part of a celebration- not political grandstanding.

    December 11, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  7. ImvotingforHillary

    OMG!!!! Obummer wore a tie! How dare he wear a tie? Only real "Mericans" should wear ties!

    December 11, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  8. John

    Mrs O did not like the friendliness of the Danish PM. Thats all it is. It's funny cause we get to see the human side. Bad taste cause it was a funeral .... Maybe a litte, but nothing to get heated about.

    December 11, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  9. rs

    ru serious

    ....tacky. Can you imagine the uproar had this been Pres. Bush?!
    And you know the Danish PM was the only "selfie" taker because...?

    December 11, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  10. Malory Archer

    ru serious

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


    NOBODY would have taken a photo of themselves with the previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue because it's REALLY hard to take a "selfie" with someone while you're hurling your shoes at them.

    December 11, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  11. American Citizen

    Barak, pass the popcorn!

    December 11, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  12. dr69

    For those who are in defense of the POTUS, you would have crucified George Bush if he would have behaved this way. Nothing else can be expected of Obama worshipers.

    December 11, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  13. vgs1895

    Seriously? People care about whether he took a picture or not?

    December 11, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  14. Getalife

    Oh please, this wasn't a funeral, it was a celebration of a man's life and legacy. It's not for you to be sad, the president was just enjoying hisself. It wasn't even his camera and he didn't take the pic! Get the stick out of your butts and get a life!! You go ahead Mr. President, enjoy yourself.

    December 11, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  15. John

    The Castro handshake is bad cause many American citizens, mostly Cuban American, still have issues and POTUS should know better than to piss off his voters.

    December 11, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  16. Gail me

    Just CNN slinging something at the chump Obama again, trying to great gossip, slander and hoping something will stick. We all know Obama is a chump, but How ridiculous is CNN becoming. I spent many years in south Africa and they certainly won't see the selfie as worthy of CNN. Why not go all the way CNN, Rush Limbaugh for program director? CNN has taken a bad turn towards slander and gossip. What happened to the awesome news machine of the past? John King is bad in the role he is in. Just saying

    December 11, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  17. smowe

    Once again, we are the laughingstock of the world. I love how some of these commenters bend over backward to find excuses for this based on his political party. Be honest with yourselves for once in your life. You wouldn't accept this behavior from your kids, let alone a president.

    December 11, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  18. rs

    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.
    Really- that's what you see? Your reality is obviously in a very tiny minority judging from these posts.

    December 11, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  19. Tbob

    If Ronny Ray-Guns and Iron Meg would have done it, wouldn't it have been just called the Great Communication or PR?

    December 11, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  20. Buckn

    Tread softly, people.. CNN doesn't like negative opinions about Obama. Big CNN brother is watching!

    December 11, 2013 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  21. Anonymous

    I am with "S"...Really, Please go to MSN and read the truth.

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  22. Jessicathecat

    What can you expect? Nothing more or less than typical Obama behaviour. No taste, no dignity, no sense of the fitness of things. Typical.

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  23. Free Money

    A bunch of selfies taken by a bunch of vain fake people watching a fake interpreter.

    An appropriate thing to do in their fake world

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  24. Boo

    This is not a newsworthy item....come on CNN!!!

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  25. Holman Robertson

    I am not a member of the first family's fan club. However, in my opinion, Michelle is simply jet-lagged from the long flight to South Africa. I will give her that much.

    December 11, 2013 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
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