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. Lord Toronaga

    Michelle is DEFINITELY angry. The last picture nails it.

    December 11, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  2. carl

    How funny , get over it people.

    December 11, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  3. Warbo

    I get a huge kick out of seeing the look on Michelle's face as Barry gets fresh with the blonde. What would you bet that he slept on the Presidential couch that night?

    December 11, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  4. Sniffit

    One might wonder whether CNN, the MSM in general and the GOP/Teatrolls recognize just how incredibly insulting they are behaving towards South African culture by pretending they have the right to graft American cultural value judgments onto this celebration and thereby attempt to manufacture a nontroversy out of this as a means of attacking Obama. They don't do "memorial service" the way some in this country do. This was an entire stadium filled with dancing, singing, cheering people enjoying themselves, being loud, expressing their joy of Mandela's life. Perhaps the MSM and GOP/Teatrolls just can't fathom that South Africans are different than most of us in some ways, or just can't fathom that conservatives in America don't get to tell the rest of the world what is appropriate behavior in response to a beloved person's passing, and how to hold a memorial service. Guess what? You have no right. You have no say. The only people who have any say whatsoever here are the South African people, and I can guarantee you this: THEY ADORE OBAMA AND FIND YOUR ATTEMPTS TO OVERLAY YOUR OWN VALUES AND JUDGMENTS ONTO THEIR MEMORIAL SERVICE TO BE INCREDIBLY INSULTING.

    December 11, 2013 12:13 pm at 12:13 pm |
  5. Nadiyah

    Shame on you CNN for circulating this nonsense story completely taken out of context and implying that the switch in seats was some admonishment by Michelle for her husband's perceived Bad Behavior. Where are the pictures of Michelle smiling with the "Blonde Chick" (Prime Minister of Denmark)?


    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  6. Tony

    The caption for picture No. 5 reads: "The memorial was not a funeral but the creator of the "Selfies at Funerals" Tumblr described the world leaders' selfie as such...." Gee, what a surprise, another conservative liar.

    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  7. Lord Toronaga

    I really enjoy the new CNN. Thank you for playing fair. No more cheer leading like MSNBC.

    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  8. TadBad

    Much has been made as well about Michelle's expression here. Who knows why she was looking that way? Maybe she was feeling physically unwell or the like. Maybe she and the President had a personal disagreement earlier about something completely unrelated. Maybe she had a worry on her mind about her daughters or a personal family matter. Who knows and what does it truly matter to me or anyone else? People who feel the need to pick apart the day-to-day minutiae of others need to get over themselves and get their own life to worry about.

    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  9. QS

    ROTFLMAO! Just when I thought Obama-haters couldn't get any lower after the "scandalous" handshake!

    Are we also to attack and condemn all the people.....ALL the people out in the streets celebrating the life of this extraordinary person? The ones singing and dancing, in the rain, waiting for buses to take them to the memorial?

    And apparently Erick Erickson doesn't know the difference between a funeral and a memorial. Conservatives – always looking for some petty, irrational way to make themselves look bad....and constantly succeeding.

    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  10. SRutherford

    Obviously nobody that is criticizing this was watching. That stadium was rocking. Music playing, and not funeral music, they were dancing and chanting like a soccer game. This was not supposed to be an event that everyone sat quietly and dabbed tears from their eyes, it was absolutely a party and if you cant get that then you are an ignorant American. Americans wonder why they are disliked around the world, it's because a lot of Americans only believe in what they do and the way they do things is appropriate and right. Apparently, in South Africa, they felt that this was a celebration and a reason to party. I tip my hat to the three politicians for taking the rods out of their butts and joining in the celebration.

    December 11, 2013 12:14 pm at 12:14 pm |
  11. Steve

    If you or I were having our every move photographed when in public... sooner or later we would have photos just like this for people to pass judgment on... so to me it was a passing moment where everyone was enjoying each other's company... much to do about nothing really. Next story please.

    December 11, 2013 12:15 pm at 12:15 pm |
  12. Dan Heath

    Although this is really a nothing issue... it says all you need to know about the President. Is it a big deal? Probably not but how arrogant and stupid can the man be? It’s become overwhelming obvious, that he was not the right man for the job. How people still defend this clown is beyond me. What an embarrassment!

    December 11, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  13. Does not matter...

    Look, the guy lived to 95, he died of natural causes, doesn't have to be a sobing moment. Geez, scrutiny and trying to decipher still pics is a mother...r! It's hilarious, how they assume something because the first lady is in between the two leaders, but if you look again 'where the PM that was on the right of gucci lady?'. Just saying!

    December 11, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  14. Frances Morris

    Narcissist, oblivious to his wife and disconnected from everything but his own little bubble of "me, me and more me". Perfect!

    December 11, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  15. JjeffName

    Citing Rush Limbaugh and 1 other right wing commentator shows what? As if they do anything but similarly mock the President daily.

    December 11, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  16. Manoj Mehta

    Signs of an incumbent retiree. Give the man a break, will you?

    December 11, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  17. rwhite

    Just another misguided attempt to charm the folks instead of doing the right thing.

    December 11, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  18. t

    So... would you all feel it was ok to do, harmless, etc., if it were, say, George Bush? I doubt it. You would all be screaming that he was an idiot, etc.

    But of course Obama does no wrong..... other than take your doctor, insurance, etc away.

    December 11, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  19. Syd

    If you support and agree with Obama, then it's harmless. If you don't, then it's tasteless. You really expect unbiased opinions? In America??

    December 11, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  20. Ali

    Whats next Obama on the wrecking ball??

    December 11, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  21. NJS65

    It is the Culture of the South Africans to celebrate the transition of a persons life. When some one dies you should celebrate because the peson no longer is living in this world. Dieing is a celebration of life, that is how you mourn. When a baby is born you cry. All Cultures are different when soneone dies, not everyone is like the americans. as far as the picture taking i don't see anything wron with that, not important. we have too many people here in the USA starving, don't have a place to live, no food on the table, no job, and you can't blame the Obama for that! but some of you will try. i am so glad he doesn'r sweat the small stuff, like picture taking.

    December 11, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  22. Jay

    Two words...NO CLASS.

    December 11, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  23. Chris

    No class from a no class man.

    He has never represented our country well.

    December 11, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  24. yvonne

    Just good honest fun !

    December 11, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  25. becky

    What I see is three public dignitaries acting like school children. I'm embarrassed by the president’s behavior at a memorial service for a very important man. If I where the family of Nelson Mandela I would be offended by the lack of respect shown for the people mourning this man. Clearly Mrs. Obama was not happy with the president's rude actions either. As for Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt maybe she should be grounded from her phone until she knows how to act in public. Even after Mrs. Obama separated the unruly twosome Thorning-Schmidt continued to play with her phone.

    December 11, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
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