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. ImpeachObama

    Man that picture of Michelle and the dog almost made me barf. Pardon the pun.

    December 11, 2013 01:25 pm at 1:25 pm |
  2. mike d

    Sorry Obamabots but this was very unprofessional for the POTUS to be acting like a school boy on the world stage but then again nobody in the global community really takes this clown serious anyway. Obama has not only shown himself to be incompetent but also a threat to the our Constitution and our liberties. Barry shaking Raul Castro's hand isn't really a big deal, just two dictators with the same ideology sharing a friendly hello that's all.

    December 11, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  3. rex

    THEY'RE just acting like humans, but forgot that they are WORLD leaders

    December 11, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  4. truth hurts but reality bites

    Obama is there as a represnetative of this country and the American people. W epaid millions to send him there. He has failed to represnet the country and the American people in a respectful and dignified manner. He has failed yet again. And it is sickening to listen to all the posts justifying and dismissing this abysmal behavior by a US President. Hsave you NO standards?

    December 11, 2013 01:26 pm at 1:26 pm |
  5. Stop wasting time

    Harmless now move on.

    December 11, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  6. Trudy Loo

    Was this "Before" the funeral even started? Who knows and so what. Even the biggest haters know that Obama had/has and will have nothing but the uttmost respect for Nelson Mandela. Puh-leeze....

    December 11, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  7. Whiskey Bumps

    Replace Obama in the photo with George W Bush and the American Leftist news would have a whole different take on the photo. Hypocrites. Telephoto lenses can be a Hillary.

    December 11, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  8. josh

    We have gone insane and inane in this country and our media is not helping..every minor no controversila happening ..fact..incident has now become fodder and runs thru the media ...and just like the handshakegate where it is easy to show republicans sahking hands with murderers and terrorists we now have to publish a dozen photos of right wing idiots doing the same thing or other mildly inappropriate behavior...and one last thing if the news media did not decide to report on such a n unimportant event as a selfie then there would have been no knowledge nor faux insult..

    December 11, 2013 01:28 pm at 1:28 pm |
  9. rs

    For those of you pushing the so-called "lack of character" issue- you all really want to go there? Bush looking under tables at the National Press Corp. Dinner jokingly looking for WMD; Cheney attending an outdoor Memorial looking like a model for a hunter's clothing catalog (instead of, say formal attire); Bush showing off his chip shots while discussing military funerals; Reagan's many open-mike events (much like McCain's)- I mean really people these events are as significant (in your own minds) as you wish to make them. They don't however always represent reality.

    December 11, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  10. AnnoyedByPolitics

    I'm sorry, but no matter what you think of Obama, this was quite tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  11. TAK

    >You're a President at a memorial not a tween at a One Direction concert.. Act like you've been somewhere!

    Posts the guy that never left his trailer park...

    December 11, 2013 01:29 pm at 1:29 pm |
  12. John Paul

    Yes Cord and Guest, it is very unprofessional, very undignified and yes, very pathetic, especially when it gives the appearance of heavy flirting (at the very least) right in front of a totally unamused wife named Michelle.

    December 11, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  13. ho ho ho

    If you like the President, it's harmless. If you don't, it's tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  14. rs


    Obama is so unprofessional. He's always playing when he should be working.
    And please describe "working" at a celebration of life event held in a Soccer staduim. His speech was great, and he proudly represented our nation.

    December 11, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  15. Jack Jarrell

    This is honestly the stupidest most trivial news story that I have ever read. I don't understand why this is of any significance at all. Just the fact that this is a news article from a major news source saddens me.

    December 11, 2013 01:30 pm at 1:30 pm |
  16. Obama is a Celebrity not a Leader

    Its not just the picture, it is the video of him slapping of the knee and laughing during the funeral of his so called "friend". This guy belongs on the Kardacians

    December 11, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  17. Sue Johanson

    If him taking a picture really bothers any of you- you have serious social issues and your need for validation is pathetic.

    December 11, 2013 01:31 pm at 1:31 pm |
  18. Annyh

    I don't know what everyone is fussing about. I am African and the point of this event is to celebrate life, so they forged or renewed a relationship at the memorial, in my book that would be a good thing. Besides, how often do they(heads of states/presidents/ prime ministers) get to see each other and behave like human beings. Years from now what will they remember about this day other than that they were present, I hope it will be that because they sat together, had a good laugh, and a conversation(whatever the topic may have been) they enjoyed themselves. Who remembers sitting through hours of speeches and so on. Also I am pretty sure from the looks of it President Obama got an earful from the First Lady.

    December 11, 2013 01:32 pm at 1:32 pm |
  19. rs


    But technically, can you call it a "selfie" when he was not holding the camera?
    "Facts" never get in the way of a cheesy Right-winger's lie.

    December 11, 2013 01:33 pm at 1:33 pm |
  20. frespch

    Thw working class wages have been stagnant for 40 years and all we can argue about is a photograph taken on an I-phone.
    I want solutions to the problems we are facing, not meaningless additions to them.

    December 11, 2013 01:34 pm at 1:34 pm |
  21. Babyboomer

    I thought it was in poor taste that all 3 leaders took part in this. I think Mrs. Obama wanted no part of it and the picture shown here seems to bare that out. Just seemed juvenile to me...

    December 11, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  22. Catch

    Tasteless – all three should be ashamed.

    December 11, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  23. WomanInAmerica

    Tasteless and unthoughtful. That's no way to behave at the memorial of a man you claim to honor so. Not only that, he gave no thought to the position he may have put his wife in. As an American, I'm embarrassed. They could have at least waited until after the ceremonies.

    December 11, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  24. Bill L

    If Romney or Bush had done that, the liberal media would have a fit. Such a double standard.

    December 11, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
  25. Gross

    This is disgusting

    December 11, 2013 01:35 pm at 1:35 pm |
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