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. happysac

    Unbelievably tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  2. Andrew Christie

    Nelson Mandela was the kind of person who wanted people to celebrate his life.
    He would not have been offended in regards to a selfie with others who were there to
    celebrate his life as well.
    The South Africans were dancing, this is a different culture, and you can not judge by American standards.

    December 11, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  3. southerninsanity

    It was disrespectful. Period. Michelle Obama's reaction confirms that.

    December 11, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  4. Tbob

    Surprise!, it's a setup and you fell for it.

    December 11, 2013 01:48 pm at 1:48 pm |
  5. Blanca

    Really, is this the stuff people want to complain about. The world has so many problems and this is what we're concerned about.

    December 11, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  6. ray

    Do people need to look sad at a funeral? Harmless..move on...there's no story here. When someone ask to take pics of you even if you are in a somber you show it in the pic..or you pretend. c'mon..this journalist is a obamahater

    December 11, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  7. Richard Right

    If they were at a concert or a ball game this would be fine, but a memorial service for someone so revered, its amazing, and Mrs. Obama knew it. What's so amazing is some of the commenters saying it's ok, I suspect some bias from them that would accept anything he did as OK

    December 11, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  8. suzy hager

    I really like that the Repubs are making such an issue of this. It shows Obama is doing such a great job that they have to scrape bottom to find things to gripe about.

    December 11, 2013 01:49 pm at 1:49 pm |
  9. Big Daddy

    I agree with several of the posts below. The President is CLEARLY enjoying himself talking to the 'cute blonde' as she's being described. Any guy will know what I'm talking about...take a look at that smile. Barack is positively BEAMING. With all of the administration's troubles lately, we haven't seen a smile that big from him in ages. Deny all we want, but POTUS was definitely liking the attention. He is a normal warm-blooded male after all...only human.
    As for the appropriateness of the selfie, people have to understand that attitudes in Africa are VERY different than the US, and that's especially so for funerals / memorials / wakes. If you look at the wider audience, there are people cheering and waving flags...dancing around. The selfie is no big deal.
    Don't get me wrong – I'm not an Obama apologist...his failures involving the IRS / Fast & Furious / NSA / Benghazi and other scandals are irrefutable even to a Democrat. But let's focus on real issues...not made-up ones like this.

    December 11, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  10. thedmp

    And this is news ..bee-cause???.....So...the president isn't allowed to take a selfie with others?? I wonder if the others in the picture made headlines in their respective countries...why is CNN so fixed on EVERY move the president makes ..if the guy walks on the beach holding hands with his wife and his wife has a frown its OMG their marriage is in trouble..maybe the sun was in her eyes WHO CARES....CNN you focus on this stuff because you need something to fill the space....FIND SOME REAL NEWS

    December 11, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  11. ickelly

    A man who gave his life so that people may enjoy freedoms – such as taking selfies, is what he stood for – not for you people to judge others harshly – should be assame of yourselves for even giving a chit about this in the first place. No wonder our kids grow up picking on others – look at yourselves.

    December 11, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  12. JjkName

    I am astounded by CNN's continuous deliberate efforts to portray this President/ Administration in a negative light and to distort what happened at the memorial into an inference that the president did ANYTHING inappropriate. Wow the is yellow journalism at it's worst! The editors at CNN should be ashamed for their destructive abandonment of Journalistic ethics!

    December 11, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  13. Dave

    When She gets him home ..... He is in trouble. lol

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  14. D. Dickson

    Quit tring to make news. This is totally NON News, and totally harmless, Just report the REAL news. Don't make up the news!

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  15. Blanca

    The world has so many problems, and this is what we are complaining about.

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  16. patirolf

    Regardless of ones view of Obama, the man is a superstar with people. We see that here. My main view is Mandela was 95 years old, many of us believe that at that age it is a celebration of life. It is a happy time, not a somber one, as we witnessed the South African community celebrating his life. The memorial was 4 hours long, 4 hours. Common folks. Go after him for allowing the fracking in north dakota, go after him for the nsa, go after him for causing the government shut down and my personal favorite, his attack on whistle blowers and activists like Swartz, Snowden, DeChristopher and so on....

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  17. RC

    Like most of O's actions; it is tasteless. I wonder if he read his speach

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  18. Nane1960

    Leave the man alone!!!!!!!

    December 11, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  19. sno

    Obama should ACT appropriately and could wait and make this pic later.Stupidity. O Should learn by now how act appropriately at any memorial ceremony . And I do not care about other people's behaviour. He is OUR president and represent USA, it is not a family meeting
    What suprise me how dems find excuses for Obama's mistakes , but jammed on Romney 's son mistake when he helped 4 people, but then made a pic with smile by the crushed car.
    Romney's son and Obama on the same boat now. Both acted stupid. But Obama represent USA ( it is a shame for us), and Romney's son represent nobody.

    December 11, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  20. jimmie

    Obama has ALWAYS been a tasteless selfish socialist who cares not America but only his own socialist agenda.

    December 11, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  21. Democrat

    I am a democrat. I voted for Obama. I think what he did was tasteless and crude. People of his stature at an event like that should behave with more dignity.

    December 11, 2013 01:53 pm at 1:53 pm |
  22. Leo

    Some people are just fun. Nothing bad I see on that picture, Obama was just taking a picture with his buddies, I can't try to read more than I see into to this picture. Only that some people smile better than you because they take care of their tooth.
    Some people are just jealous period.

    December 11, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  23. John

    Joshua Bethea, This was a MEMORIAL service not a FUNERAL? Yes and he is the President of the United States this is not vacation he represents the people of the US and other Presidents who where they acted with dignity not acting like some idiot school kid.

    December 11, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  24. Huffy

    Why is it that CNN only shows one picture of MO's reaction? There are plenty of others showing her extremely PO'd and glaring at the PM. I think she's both PO'd because of him acting like an immature oaf as well as obvious flirtatious behavior with a very attractive woman. Funny, those pictures have either been deleted or MO's cropped out. Look at the other men sitting directly below them. They aren't acting like they're teenagers! They're DIGNITARIES, emphasis on the dignity. Obama shows none of that! He's a joke and should be ashamed and apologize to Mandela's family.

    I don't care who you are, it's extremely disrespectful to be taking selfies at a person's funeral and/or memorial service.

    December 11, 2013 01:54 pm at 1:54 pm |
  25. john

    Harmless, anyone says anything else they have way too much time on their hands and a big chip on their shoulder.

    December 11, 2013 01:55 pm at 1:55 pm |
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