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. barryinlasvegas

    Obama thought he had a new self promotion and it has backfired. He is an idiot only thinking about himself. That is why his staff now calls him Obamame.

    December 11, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  2. Rachel

    It's a funeral for crissakes, not a wedding. This president has no class.

    December 11, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  3. michael

    has any body ask why? Maybe all humans codependent on there imagination -- thought without reason are factual truths. Ask and find.

    December 11, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  4. widow

    best part is michelle's face... she looks sooooooo jealous and upset barack is having a nice time with a flirty head of state. l

    December 11, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  5. Rowdy1

    Michelle, when "he" acts up in public, please reach over and pinch him next time and tell him to straighten up! Thank you.

    December 11, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  6. PaganScorp

    I happen to be a fan of your countries president. However I do think how he and the other two leaders acted was not very respectful.

    December 11, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  7. Paul

    Yes, its Disrespectful. He was supposed to be honoring, recognizing Mandela.... not himself

    ObamaCare disaster makes our Government/country look low-tech; Obama's "selfie" makes us look "low-class".

    December 11, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  8. Mark

    Ahhh...the power of perception. Often more important than the truth is how one is perceived. So, is this a story? Only in that it is counter to the perception he is engaged, brilliant, intelligent. He is a president losing confidence in his ability to lead and so controlling those things that cause people to perceive him a certain way becomes important. The book buying story with his children was all about increasing the perception of him as a good guy, parent, father, etc. Well, these pictures with those around him acting as statesmen and him taking selfies is certainly one in which his handlers are groaning and causing them more work. While 'Joe is Joe (Biden) I have a feeling there is a ';just Barack being Barack' joke deep in the shadows too. Basically, he blew it. He encouraged the perception he is one of the class clowns in High School we all liked and had fun with but did not trust with those things that meant the most to us. Doesn't matter that some find it endearing and others do not. It is, after all, about a growing perception he can little afford to increase and this increases that damning perception for him. He needs to step up his game if he wishes to recover what we once gave him freely.

    December 11, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  9. AJ

    I don't know about all the people saying it was inappropriate, but I'd be angry if people showed up to MY funeral all weepy and depressed and grim looking. This isn't Puritan New England, life celebrations are supposed to be just that- a CELEBRATION. The man lived 95 incredible years, you really think he spent all that time fighting for his country's freedom so that people could be persecuted for a supposed social "faux pas" at his own memorial? Every picture I ever saw of Mandela he was SMILING. So I'm on team Lighten Up- this is so not worth the drama people are causing.

    December 11, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  10. skarphace

    President Obama is proving he is a communist for shaking the hand of a communist, and he is showing that he has the arrogance of a king for taking a selfie at a funeral.

    Really? This is your argument, Republicans? The fact is that you are grasping at straws to find anything with which to criticize the President. Now that the economy is clearly on the mend, the deficit is shrinking, unemployment is down, the markets are up, a deal has been reached with both Syria and Iran, and many more people are figuring out that the ACA is not the end of the world, you don't have much left, do you?

    December 11, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  11. Lise

    For one, it's a memorial not a funeral. Also, I get the impression they (POTUS and Cameron) were just going along with what the Danish PM wanted, to be polite and congenial. The British are quite stuffy and I can't imagine Cameron liked having her pull his face into the picture as shown in one shot. If anything, it's the Danish PM who showed bad judgement.

    December 11, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  12. ST

    CNN,can you please stop all this nonsense . Ask yourself who is benefitting from these kind of News? This woman Ashley ,looks like she is very much fond of gossip. You are downgrading yourself. Your tactics of using any News about Pres.Obama as a bait to hook up republicans,is working now,but won't continue.You used Sarah Barracuda as your bait,that worked,for a while but no more nowadays. Do your job as required as real journalist.

    December 11, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  13. darrell

    this is just another example of how your president is all about himself than the people...

    December 11, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  14. Lord Toronaga

    For all the crazy liberals claiming that the Republicans are behind this... HA. CNN posted this. And it is funny. And it is true. And Mandela doesn't care. Only Michelle cares.

    December 11, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    It was a celebration of a great man's life. Attendees were in good spirits to remember Mandela's legacy, including dignitaries from around the world.


    December 11, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  16. skarphace

    Nick: "Remember, the people saying that this is not a big deal were the same ones saying Sen. Rubio's career was over for taking a sip of water."

    I am one of the ones saying that this is no big deal and I didn't even remember the Rubio/water incident until you recalled it. So, false statement. Try again.

    December 11, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  17. rich

    Miss Obama is one pisseedd offff person. For those of you that believe a wife can't see what her husband is doing with a very attractive woman, you are in denial. And yes, the pres looks as if he's having a little too much fun at ceremony honoring a world leader.

    December 11, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  18. A True Conservative

    Hmmmm....maybe I was wrong. Obama may have some class after all......Michele Obama that is.....

    December 11, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  19. jim

    Rush Limbaugh – just shut up, nobody wants to hear you anymore.

    December 11, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  20. Joshua Bethea

    Par for the course for the course for President Obama haters. This was a MEMORIAL service not a FUNERAL. But wait why even try to deal with facts for some or a culture they know not or not desire to know? I am moving on and honoring a man, Mandela that I see as an image of Gandhi and King had they lived.

    December 11, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  21. Name

    Attending the funeral of a communist was a bad idea to begin with but hey Invictus was a good movie so I guess it's ok.

    December 11, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  22. cgattman

    If I caught my daughter doing "selfies" at a funeral I would take her phone away from her and talk about respect and dignity when it was over.

    But, whatever. He's the President. He Does What He Wants.

    December 11, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  23. josh

    Leave the President alone. And to be clear this wasn't a funeral this wad a memorial service! It's a picture, get over it!

    December 11, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  24. Guest

    Notice they are using the BlackBerry Z10. Awesome device. The only device to use for security.

    December 11, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  25. forwhatsright

    "Sitting next to them was first lady Michelle Obama, who was clearly not taking part in the photo-op." What nonsense. She isn't a head of state! If she had horned-in on the picture, the press would be saying that she was just trying to push her way into politics.

    December 11, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
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