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. Gurgyl

    CNN, you don't have news? This is so trivial, you magnify? Nonsense. President farted, used rest room, he dressed up, are these news? Idiotic.

    December 11, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  2. Wee

    So what! Go target somebody else!

    December 11, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  3. Todd Beasley

    I think the so-called "selfie" was harmless. The occasion was not a somber one. It was an upbeat celebration of Nelson Mandela's life. He'd been ill for so long that his family and supporters were happy that he was no longer in pain. Plus, he'd accomplished so much in his life, there was much to be thankful for and happy about.

    December 11, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  4. Woman In California

    Given a choice, I would have followed the First Lady's example but since I wasn't there (as most of you weren't), I used my PIC with MSNBC being the 2nd picture and I didn't see an attack being made on this country while the president was smiling for a picture. Therefore, I conclude this is just another made-up non-story for LOSERS who are miserable in life and hate this president because he doesn't fit the stereotype.

    December 11, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  5. J Russ

    "just bob

    Reagan and the Republican Party voted to keep Mandela in jail and support apartheid."

    Actually felt that the sanctions would hurt the South African people, not the South African government. That was the thought behind the arms embargo instead of sanctions. But don't take my word for that, look up Reagan's own words when he explained it on national TV.

    December 11, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  6. JanB

    CNN – I can no longer consider you a legitimate news organization. Stop trying to mimic Fox News (definitely NOT legitimate). It was low of you to post this story as if there was reason to condemn Obama for his actions.

    December 11, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  7. Katie1970

    No issue with the selfie. Most Memorials are filled with laughter and tears as they chronicle the good and bad that happen during a life well lived. Michelle changing seats with Barry is priceless though.

    December 11, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  8. Mikein MT

    I'll let others decide the importance of this, but I have to applaud the First Lady for inserting herself into the situation, between her husband and the Swedish Prime Minister. My mother used to do the same thing to me and my sister.

    December 11, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  9. Brad

    No story here.

    December 11, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
  10. Stephanie

    And this made the news???!!! If the president was white, this would be a non factor!!! Idiots!

    December 11, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  11. Tallulah

    Extremely poor taste. Insulting to the Mandela family and it makes POTUS look like a kid who doesn't know any better.

    December 11, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  12. paul reynolds

    Wow! Chairman ISSA better open up some Endless Hearings here, maybe even Impeachment for the National Risk this surely imposed!!!

    Meanwhile – How many Hearing Mr. Issa for Dubya who still has an International Arrest Warrant for his boasted War Crimes..!??

    December 11, 2013 12:50 pm at 12:50 pm |
  13. Otis

    It's a no brainer. Helle or Michelle?

    December 11, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  14. QS

    Compared to what conservatives have done recently, this simply makes them look even more petty. The irony that these same people are trying to call out Obama for doing nothing wrong when it's been their own const.ituency that has been bad-mouthing Mandela since the second he died.

    You people are laughable, pitiful and so transparent that even a child can see through your tripe at this point!

    December 11, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  15. Namelinda

    First of all at what time did this occur, before or after the funeral? Rush Limbaugh almost went blind, the next time God may make it permanent. Limbaugh needs to shut up because African people love President Obama because his father is from Africa. Just like the media to twist a story and that is the stage set before you limbaugh.

    December 11, 2013 12:51 pm at 12:51 pm |
  16. Tony

    Not a fan of Obama, But here's my two cents: Handshake with Castro = Presidential; Selfie = Totally inappropriate.

    December 11, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  17. paul reynolds

    Yeah, much better when Our President (Dubya) repelled Women in Disgust by attempting to touch them – Merkle!!

    December 11, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  18. Ted Brooks


    What if previous Presidents did this?

    December 11, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  19. paul reynolds

    We all know that if our President SNUBBED the PMs, there would be complaints about THAT too!!!
    No matter what, Yous always try to criticize the man!

    December 11, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  20. CryBabies

    @ Jeff Brown in Jersey...How about we conservatives don't agree with his ideology . Or maybe, just maybe, it could be that he is quite inept at managing things (ie..the ACA fiasco) . If you want to fuel the fire with "hatred" so be it. I see it as much more the inability of this community organizer to really lead rather than anything else. " Hatred "is so personal and I am not personally acquainted with the POTUS.

    December 11, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  21. Jesse

    No class and very rude. Now you see why 90% of the world hates America but loves the money....

    December 11, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  22. RomneyWho

    People die every day for one reason or another, it's unavoidable and expected, Mandela lived to be a ripe old age and moved on, don't get your panties in a bunch because people, who just happen to be world leaders, had a laugh, exchanged a little joy and took a selfie to commemorate the occasion. I'm sure Mandela is somewhere in heaven taking a selfie with Jesus and friends. People? 😦

    December 11, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  23. skarphace

    For those of you saying that Michelle is angry, you are not giving her enough credit. She is a very intelligent woman (perhaps, even more intelligent than her husband), and she realizes the importance of mending relations between leaders, which is exactly what our President was doing.

    December 11, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  24. Bob

    It's just typical behavior from this generation. Nothing is important. No decorum. They pay a lot of lip-service to the deceased, but act like children rather the heads of state. More to come, I'm afraid.

    December 11, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  25. Patrick

    Totally, 100%, without question, TASTELESS!!! But not at all surprising.

    December 11, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
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