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.



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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. Steve Miller


    December 11, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  2. Bwana Salama

    Can't you blame obtuse-moronic Obama for wanting a pic with that good looking woman? I mean look at what he has to come back to bed to every night... I don't blame him.

    December 11, 2013 01:17 pm at 1:17 pm |
  3. Joe Lynch

    I'll give the three yahoos a pass on this one. A selfie at a memorial service? By world leaders we're supposed to take, there are more important issues. But, if that was done in the Capitol rotunda by three African leaders at a memorial for one of our leaders, can't you just hear the howls now?

    Barack, I get it. You want to be hip, cool, with it. But a selfie, man? Don't you have enough photos of yourself with world leaders?

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

    There is a time to mourn and time to be marry BUT DON'T MIX TWO AT ONCE!'s NOT APPROPRIATE AT A FUNERAL MEMORIAL

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

    And CNN deliberately sweeps any photographs or videos of the celebration under the rug...anything that would show just how loud it was and all of the people in the stadium dancing, singing, shouting, etc. Can't let anyone see the "selfie" in no...that might impair the ability to sensationalize a nontroversy over it. Freekin ridiculous.

    December 11, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  6. just saying

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

    technically he did have his hand on the camera so yes.

    December 11, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  7. ThinkAgain

    I don't see a problem with it. We should all be thankful that these leaders have congenial relationships.

    December 11, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  8. Deborah Schuller

    Every woman in the world knows that look...husband flirting , wife upset ! 🙂

    December 11, 2013 01:19 pm at 1:19 pm |
  9. Bast

    The only reason Michellle isn't in it is because there was no more room.
    To be honest people take way too many pictures of themselves lately, but then again it's the, look at me me me millenium. Humans have always been self centered now they have a medium to really show off their vanity.

    December 11, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  10. geen

    these self-described media dva clowns...president or do they expect people to have respect for them when they don't have respect for themselves? kind of reminded me of the phoniness of that slug Clinton at Ron Browns funeral...all fun and laughter as he mingled with crowd until he realized he was being filmed and the 'crocodile' tears started to try to flow, as a terrible acting job of trying to look sad took over..GIVE ME A BREAK!!! Where do these clowns come from and when will they crawl back under the rocks from where they emerged....

    December 11, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  11. Rudy NYC


    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.
    What was he doing? My wife used to get mad at me just for smiling at the waitress when I took her out for dinner. She'd get even madder when the waitresses smiled back. She'd go nuclear when they blushed and whatever there is that women do at times like that.. That's when I had to remind her that she should be proud of the fact that other women find her man to be so attractive.

    December 11, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  12. sickofit

    I think the picture is great. Good to see them being human. Lighten up people!

    December 11, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  13. politicalrafa

    It is quite interesting to see how on the very same section (political ticker) the very same people bash Senator Cruz for walking out when Castro spoke calling him disrespectful and stating that it was a slp to Mandela in such a solemn occsion. BUT when it comes to obama having a grand olde time flirting with the dane, and taking selfies, all is good, move on, nothing to see here.

    Obaminable =- hypocrite

    December 11, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  14. jake

    my daughter takes selfies, but even she knows not to take one at a funeral. Moreover, what is Obama doing slapping the knee laughing at a funeral for someone he cares about. Diva, narcissist, and unprofessional are the additives which come to mind. You really have to be an Obama Zombie to think otherwise

    December 11, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
  15. JR

    TO CNN: You are deceptively quoting Roberto Schmidt in photo 4. You transition away from some users saying, "I don't see what the fuss is about" with "(h)owever (Schmidt) said "it makes me a little sad...," implying that Schmidt snapped the photo because he disapproved of the world leaders' behavior. Only those finishing the article can see you quoted him out of context and in counterpoint to people he actually agreed with. I think this is shameful. A better quote for photo four would have been something along the lines of, "Schmidt himself, referring to the harsh reactions, said 'I think it's sad..."

    December 11, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  16. Johnathan

    its sad when people think something like this is news worthy.. Have we really become that shallow?? get a live ...

    December 11, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  17. Vivia

    Only a few decades ago, it was popular to take pictures of the body while it was in the casket. There is nothing wrong with taking a selfie. Everyone should just lighten up.

    December 11, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  18. Joe R.

    They're people too; let them have their fun. I will say though, that the photo doesn't do much for Michelle; she looks a little angry and a little bored.

    December 11, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  19. Donna

    My five year old has a better sense of decorum than this fake President of the USA. I'm surprised he didn't crack a beer and start dancing around. The look on Michelle's face says it all. I'm sure Obama got a good dressing down, as sany misbehaving teenager should have.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  20. Sniffit

    And just how do you know what they think, kind of self absored are we not? You liberals are really not that smart"

    Have you seen the video of Obama taking the stage at this memorial service. The place erupted in deafening cheers. They love the guy. It's not like it's some secret or takes more than just a little open-eyed observation. And it has been explained from numerous sources just what a raucus celebration the stadium was and how the dancing, singing, cheering and jovial celebration of Mandela's life and passing relates to South African culture. I'm not just fabricating things out of thin air here. I'm paying attention and accepting information provided as true, instead of desperately trying to weave some rationalization for denying it like you conservatives so often do when confronted with reality's liberal bias.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  21. phantom235

    Typical of the Self-Absorbed Narcissist.
    He is clueless and classless.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  22. ImpeachObama

    We are a joke in the eyes of the world.
    Our immature, emotionally stunted President embarrasses us again.
    Good speaker, but at the core he is really a very stupid man, controlled by puppet masters.
    However, lack of dignity and respect is inexcusable, even among the mentally challenged.
    Obama is a low down crying shame.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  23. Shawn Obrian

    I think it is great! To have a the Danish Prime Minister take a selfie with the President at my funeral would be an honor! It was a celebration of Nelson's life. Good for you President Obama and smile at the haters because all they can do is hate.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  24. Silence DoGood

    What is more immature than a selfie? People going on and on about a selfie.

    December 11, 2013 01:23 pm at 1:23 pm |
  25. Sniffit

    "Next the GOP will complain about what color socks the president was wearing ."

    In light of Bush 1's penchant for crazy socks, it would not surprise me in the least to see them do something so hypocritical.

    December 11, 2013 01:24 pm at 1:24 pm |
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