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. Larry in Houston

    ""Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh spent a portion of show hammering the President for taking part in the selfie""

    After reading the "Rush" paragraphs, I honestly think he may have a heart attack or something.....I mean this guy is Just going on & on ranting about Obama & that selfie pic.....LOL –

    CNN – I hope you guys don't get sued or something, IF 'ole Rush has some type of heart attack...I mean, I honestly don't know how people can listen to his radio program... He sounds like he might be "self destructive" or might have a blood pressure problem, or something....LOL – –

    December 11, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  2. Michael

    This just in: President of the United States not allowed to have fun.

    December 11, 2013 12:56 pm at 12:56 pm |
  3. Johnny 5

    I've seen better class at truck stops. With that being said, Michelle could eat an apple through a tennis racket.

    December 11, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  4. abbotn

    I think Nelson's would have loved it. I know I do.

    December 11, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  5. LastOne Standing

    Limbaugh is such a gas bag.

    December 11, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  6. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    Clearly the MSM thinks this is news. Look at where journalism has gone.

    December 11, 2013 12:58 pm at 12:58 pm |
  7. Sick Rantorum

    Wow. A President who understands technology, culture and enjoys his job from time to time. No wonder the Up Tightie Whitie Rights are so upset.

    December 11, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  8. Name James Wolfer

    Most of you and your comments are the reason this country is in the shape it's in. Do you not have anything good or nice to say to anyone or anything. You make me sick!

    December 11, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  9. Miltonboy

    Before you express your opinion, defending or criticizing, pause a moment and ask yourself if your opinion would change if it were a Republican president. If so, proceed.

    December 11, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  10. Oral Pavlov

    I think our president should have Rush Limbaugh as his new pr and front man. Rush has shown his true concern for humanity and the common man and if he was at the president's side, right next to the first lady, these tragedies would not occur. But it is too late. This horrific transgression against American values has plunged our once proud nation into the depths of irreversible depression. Let us all now weep.

    December 11, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  11. Rudy NYC


    It's a funeral for crissakes, not a wedding. This president has no class.
    It was a memorial celebration. The funeral will be held Sunday. O(bviously, none of the President's critics on the right have seen much in the way of footage from the event. I know for a fact that Fox News broadcast almost none of it live. They kept saying that you could watch it on their web site's link to a streaming video feed. You might compared it to a carnival atmosphere, which was the whole point. It was a CELEBRATION of Madiba's life, not Nelson Mandela's funeral.

    December 11, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  12. Paul

    I think the problem isin't that.. I think it shows how jealus Michelle Obama is

    December 11, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  13. Lo

    I think we've all been to funerals when we see people we haven't seen in a long time and smile and laugh and have a good time WHILE remembering a lost friend. However, a "selfie", I believe is both harmless AND tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  14. jAMIE

    Harmless. The memorial event was celebratory of Mandela's life, with music and dancing and laughing. It was not a traditional American funeral. People just look for reasons to pick apart the President. Disapprove of his political actions if you want, but making a fuss over this is going overboard.

    December 11, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  15. Dutch/Bad Newz, VA -aka- Take Back The House -aka- No Redemption Votes

    Not to mention, THIS WAS NOT A FUNERAL!!!! Did you see a casket in the stadium? I don't think so! It was a memorial service in which I did NOT see tears being shed, but a gathering of people cheering the life of a great man. Get a life and find some real news to report on.

    December 11, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  16. heatherthornswood

    The memorial was a celebration of Mandela's life and legacy. It's this kind of camaraderie and friendship and sense of community that Mandela was in support of. I think Mandela himself would approve. How this is newsworthy I will never know. Even world leaders are human beings. How this is regarded as less than honorable is crazy. How does a single incident place into question the president's moral or ethical code? We should all count ourselves lucky that we are judged globally by a single action we take. More good will come from this joyful celebration than a dour and overly formal memorial. Friendship and joy people – it's just what this world needs more of.

    December 11, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  17. Sniffit

    "So... would you all feel it was ok to do, harmless, etc., if it were, say, George Bush? "

    Yep. Harmless. He was there too (flew in on AF1 with Obama) and he instagrammed a selfie he took with Bono from the memorial service. Interestingly, nobody's talking about it at all and nobody's trying to manufacture a silly nontroversy over it, despite Dubya's obvious automatic status and stature as the previous POTUS and as a representative of our country and a world leader (yes, even though he's not still in office). IOKIYAR

    December 11, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  18. Urmi

    The first thing it came to my mind seeing this pic is inappropriate and disrespectful. It was not expected of a president to act like a lightheaded teenager and take selfie at a memorial.

    December 11, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  19. TheRightisSOWrong

    Seriously? Please CNN. The leaders were all in very good spirits. It wasn't his funeral. There was no body there. I'm surprised by CNN. How tabloid......

    December 11, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  20. unc dig

    I think the look on Michelle's face says it all – UNACCEPTABLE behavior from the POTUS! He just doesn't have a clue or idea of how to act or perform like the leader of the greatest nation on earth.

    December 11, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  21. WIlly

    But technically, can you call it a "selfie" when he was not holding the camera?

    December 11, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  22. PhDiva

    this is not news. they took a photo at a celebration of a life that was about joy and freedom. Michelle was not in the picture, She is just looking on and away. Stop ascribing "angry black woman" emotions to her. move on and focus on something important.

    December 11, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  23. TheRightisSOWrong

    "it was a funeral for God's sake"....well, you see, no, it wasn't. It was a memorial service that celebrated the man's life. HE didn't die some young tragic death. He was an old man that died in his bed and did great things. Jeez, folks, a little perspective. There was no body present, his death wasn't a tragedy. It's just life. you HOPE To die old in your bed, my lord, the drama queens!

    December 11, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  24. Mike

    Give me a friggin break. This is called a distraction. The GOP just proposed cutting off aid to 1.3 million people without jobs and that Ass on the radio wants to create an issue out of a picture. Really? Who's got the priority problem? These are real families. A friggin picture??

    December 11, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  25. ray

    Hey guys chill out this is 2013 for God sake, he is a president not a king or dictator.

    December 11, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
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