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.



[twitter-follow screen_name='politicalticker'] [twitter-follow screen_name='KilloughCNN']

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. Cutedog2

    From this president, little shocks and awes me anymore. I would say this is who he is.

    December 11, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  2. ME

    I would say one or two or maybe even three too many

    December 11, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  3. Sniffit

    "I'm surprised he didn't crack a beer and start dancing around."

    In light of the fact that so many of the South Africans in the stadium, in the streets, at home or celebrating Mandela's life anywhere were already doing exactly that, it would have fit right in. When in Rome...

    December 11, 2013 01:56 pm at 1:56 pm |
  4. Lowering the bar

    Obama just unilaterally lowered the bar so low that Kanye West could run for president. I am ashamed.

    December 11, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  5. dklecan

    If Mandela were there he would have been in the picture. His spirit is probably photo-bombing the selfie. . He was all about coming together. His countrymen were all laughing, dancing, celebrating his life. Taking selfies is one of the 21st century's method of celebrating. ...much ado about nothing. Bless you Mandela and bless your legacy.

    December 11, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  6. Malory Archer


    We are a joke in the eyes of the world.


    When the rest of the world sees your ilk's feigned indignation we certainly are!

    December 11, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  7. Jen

    I don't care what the tone was for this great man's memorial–jovial or not–Mr. Obama is the leader of the free world, and this was no time to act like a juvenile. It was truly classless for our President as a representative of our Country, and it was disrespectful to Mr. Mandela, who helped people like Mr. Obama get to where he is today.

    December 11, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  8. FrankinSD

    Given the fact that POTUS is not allowed to carry a cell phone, he clearly isn't the person who took the photo. And the Danish PM can hardly be blamed for wanting the shot.

    December 11, 2013 01:57 pm at 1:57 pm |
  9. Sniffit

    "We are a joke in the eyes of the world."

    Indeed. The GOP/Teatrolls are very much looked upon as crazy ideological nincompoops by the rest of the planet.

    December 11, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  10. felicia

    I can't believe all the fuss over this. They are just human beings like everyone else. People need to stop over analyzing every little move made. The media sure knows how to spark a controversy!

    December 11, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  11. Malory Archer

    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.


    We'd be laughing our backsides off as the person taking the selfie totally misses the shot while attempting to throw their shoes at him at the same time!

    December 11, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  12. Kit

    We live in a world led by Middle Schooler's, demonstrating no respect for the position they hold, or the people they represent....and in this case, respect for the deceased. Since Obama is so enamored with having his personal photo taken with the Danish woman...maybe it is time to investigate his relationship with Vera Baker who was quietly hustled away during his first election run for president. Better about his ahem....close relationship with the president behind the scene...Valerie Jarrett.

    December 11, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  13. Sniffit

    "Was this "Before" the funeral even started?"

    It wasn't a funeral, "moran".

    December 11, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  14. Chris

    Look at picture #6, which of these "women" would you prefer to sit beside? Yes sir, Obama is in trouble at home tonight.

    December 11, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  15. MTP

    Much ado about nothing. Lighten up a little please.

    December 11, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  16. Jason

    Obama is an embarrassment and disgrace to our country.

    December 11, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  17. republicans suck ass

    Ahh geez. Why is this news?

    December 11, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  18. Sniffit

    "Replace Obama in the photo with George W Bush and the American Leftist news would have a whole different take on the photo."

    Yeah! In fact, let's replace Obama in the photo with Bush and replace the PM of Denmark with Bono and...oh wait...that's exactly the selfie Bush took at the memorial service and that the MSM is completely ignoring and nobody, not even "lefties," considers to have been a big deal, despite Bush still being a prominent world leader/figure and representative of our country at this event. IOKIYAR

    December 11, 2013 02:01 pm at 2:01 pm |
  19. Guest

    Unprofessional, very poor taste. Yes, it was held in a South African culture, and yes, there was dancing, singing, cheering people enjoying themselves, being loud, expressing their joy of Mandela's life. But a President or any other official dignitary must have a level of politically correctness. His was not!

    December 11, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  20. drlong

    Michelle appears to understand the decorum required. Many times the wife deserves the title, "the better half." This was an event to honor someone who died not some happy social gathering. Thanks Michelle for at least being the one to show some class.

    December 11, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  21. Annia

    Yes, I agee that the African (Ameircan) funeral is rather long, as my former boss used to say, when I had mentioned it to him that I went to an African-American church with my friend, Connie, one sunday, and she didn't warn me to eat something first, because it lasted 4 hours, and my former boss said, " Girl, you haven't live until you've gone to an African-American funeral." However, the funeral for Mr. Mandela, however long it may be, the President & the two priministers' behaviors were inappropriate. JMHO.

    December 11, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  22. Mike from CO

    All the tears happening in these pages after pages of butthurt is truly inspiring.

    This is how I know the Republican Party will never go away. There are too many stupid people in this country (I'm tired of just calling you ignorant, misinformed, patriotically unaware, etc. Y'all are just stupid) for that to ever happen.

    December 11, 2013 02:02 pm at 2:02 pm |
  23. Sniffit

    "Why is this cell phone picture even a story?"

    Because the MSM decided to help the GOP/Teatrolls manufacture a nontroversy out of it and is deliberately downplaying and hiding any and all photographs and video of the entire stadium singing, dancing, celebrating, shouting, cheering, etc., in order to remove any context from this "selfie" narrative.

    December 11, 2013 02:03 pm at 2:03 pm |
  24. Virginiabaked

    Get real people!! Obviously the critics have never been to an Irish wake or for that matter to a wake in the African American community. Wakes are a celebration of one's life. We get together and we laugh because we know that's what our loved one wants us to do. You take pictures, tell jokes, hug and kiss. If you haven't experienced it, it's your very grave loss.

    December 11, 2013 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
  25. mikeous

    CNN is joke. This is suppose to pass as something of importance?

    December 11, 2013 02:04 pm at 2:04 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55