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. healthcare

    I am not sure why this was CNN's focus picture to be posted today of a world leader's homegoing, but as it is the picture that CNN has posted, CNN staffer should have at least write the story correctly especially the headline. The comments from others is also interesting. This was a celebration of former Presdient Nelson Mandela's life so not sure of comments about 'frat boy at a keg party'. Bringing Presidents from around the world together is a joy especially as it is in peace. Also, the CNN staffer or staffers should get their story straight. It looks like Prime Minister Thorn-Schmidt is taking the photo with President Obama holding it straight on the end. Calling it a 'selfie' is in poor taste and onece again where the media is misleading the public!!!!! Shame on CNN!!!

    December 10, 2013 12:52 pm at 12:52 pm |
  2. Mat johnson

    Why didn't obama marry a caucasian lady. they would've looked real cute

    December 10, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  3. Fair is Fair

    Obama talked more about himself than Nelson Mandela in his speech, and now a "selfie" at the service. Classy.

    December 10, 2013 12:53 pm at 12:53 pm |
  4. L. E. G. H.

    No disrespect was shown. As you can see, the South Africans themselves were singing and dancing in celebration of Mandela's life. Obama's speech was the best of the bunch–even the local radios aired only his and then talked over the other's. The crowds loved it. Those of you who hate Obama would find something to criticize no matter what– even the color of his socks. All the leaders in the stands wanted to meet with him and if the Prime Minister of Denmark wanted to take a picture with Obama and Cameron, then good for her (it was her camera, not Obama's).

    December 10, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  5. Michael

    I have no problem with the selfie....did anyone even see the event on tv? It was more like a celebration than a memorial...and it was not a funeral at all!

    December 10, 2013 12:54 pm at 12:54 pm |
  6. healthcare

    I agree with Mary's comment about it could have been that they were looking at a picture of Mr. Mandela!!!! Thanks Mary

    December 10, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  7. gallen

    1) How is this news?
    2) Who cares?
    3) Isn't it a good thing he gets along this well with other world leaders?
    4) How is this news?
    5) Who cares?

    December 10, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  8. The Worm, Jr.

    Is it just me, or does Mrs. Obama look really pi$$ed about something?

    December 10, 2013 12:55 pm at 12:55 pm |
  9. Never shocked

    People are negative self righteous prejudice and wicked in heart. Wanting exemptions for being human but not willing to lend it. Everybody knows better than the next person! Swearing they can do everything BETTER if you just give them the opportunity. These same people say "I'm a good person!" But out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks! Self righteous people compare themselves against each other. True Righteousness will never do that. James 1:19-21

    December 10, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  10. MIKLE


    December 10, 2013 12:57 pm at 12:57 pm |
  11. Dan

    Michelle looks happy

    December 10, 2013 12:59 pm at 12:59 pm |
  12. ER

    OK for those that don't see this as classless or disrespectful....
    Imagine President Bush did this instead of President Obama...
    Now what would you be saying?
    yeah, I thought so.....

    December 10, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  13. lisa

    @Mat Johnson, so are you saying he does not look good with his wife Michelle, very interesting and slightly disturbing comment.

    December 10, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  14. Bigd9749

    This was not so much a funeral as a celebration of a man life

    December 10, 2013 01:03 pm at 1:03 pm |
  15. stupify

    Mandela was one of kind. Will there be another one like him? most probably. Why the President said that there will never be one like him again is beyond me. He does not know unless he is God and we know he is not. I am disappoint that he would make such a comment. What is surprising to me is that Mandela gave little credit to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit? I would think that only a man with a strong faith in Christ could endure what he had to endure.

    December 10, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  16. Bill

    I agree with you. If it would have bee President Bush doing this, it would be all over the media as classless, but Obama can do no wrong.

    December 10, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  17. MIKLE


    December 10, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  18. shaun

    To all you americans who do not understand that in south africa and a lot of other black cultures, a funeral is not a sad event. It is a celebration of the person. So it is suppose to a happy fun filled event. That is what was seen and that is the atmosphere in which this was going on!!

    December 10, 2013 01:07 pm at 1:07 pm |
  19. Robert

    At a funeral. Stay classy BO.

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

    And why shouldn't he? After all it is all about him. Looks like he is going to get an ear full from the Mrs.

    December 10, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  21. Alfred

    A funeral is a celebration of someone's life. That doesn't make it ok to text, tweet, Facebook, or snap selfies during other speeches and eulogies.

    December 10, 2013 01:14 pm at 1:14 pm |
  22. tcp

    Classless. I don't care if it was a celebration of life. This is NOT how the leaders of the world should act. Shame on all three of them.

    December 10, 2013 01:16 pm at 1:16 pm |
  23. Nancy

    Looking at some of the pictures around the web I can only come up with the conclusion that Mr. Mandela's funeral was treated more like a party than a funeral. The last time I checked a funeral was treated as a reverent event of somber and respectful reflection. The only American I saw present at the proceedings that composed himself properly throughout the entire occasion was former President Jimmy Carter. Thank goodness we had ONE representative of our nation there that knew how to BEHAVE.

    December 10, 2013 01:18 pm at 1:18 pm |
  24. Jonathon

    Selfie is when "you" take the photo not when someone wants you to be in their picture. Such misleading headlines and on purpose too.

    December 10, 2013 01:20 pm at 1:20 pm |
  25. Jonathon

    Alfred, I suppose you wear all black bottom to toe right? My grandpa died and requested no flowers. Instead, he wanted the money donated to his church instead. Must be very inappropriate for you to have no flowers too, right?

    December 10, 2013 01:21 pm at 1:21 pm |
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