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. QS

    As usual, conservatives vindicate my anti-conservatism with their childish, petty self-righteousness; their warped, twisted sense of priorities; and their sociopathic, holier-than-thou mentality.

    The more this so-called ideology shows its true colors, the more people will begin to understand where a majority of the problems in this country really come from.

    Now I'm going to go read something worth reading, like the story about the mom raising a mentally ill son....perhaps that might give us all a tiny scrap of insight into what is wrong with conservatives.

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

    Way ta go MIchelle! hahah!

    December 11, 2013 02:17 pm at 2:17 pm |
  3. dnokc

    Michelle appears to think tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  4. Punchmaster

    Obama's like school in the summertime: No class.

    December 11, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  5. Anonymous

    Not a big deal at all. Anyone who thinks it is, is clearly an idiot.

    December 11, 2013 02:18 pm at 2:18 pm |
  6. Name

    wow cnn. how much more like faux can you become. journalists need to find some ethics. you think you are above everyone even god.

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

    OMG!!!! Will it ever stop...lighten up. And so, we have NEVER joked around at a funeral. Please! Let's get back to fixing what is wrong in the world. Nelson Mandela celebrated life and clearly the service depicted that. I think President Obama knows HOW to conduct himself at a funeral service. Surely we have seen it time and time again. Don't more into things than what it really is!

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

    Who gives a farq, we have way bigger issues to deal with!!!

    December 11, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  9. rs1201

    It's enough already...I'm no fan of Obama's...but he didn't do anything wrong by taking that "selfie". Criticize the man when he deserves to be criticized...this is not worth a second thought. People...we have bigger problems in the country than the President taking a picture with his friends.

    December 11, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  10. Mike Bates

    Michelle has a promise of her own: If you like your Danish prime minister, you can keep your Danish prime minister.

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

    Entirely different culture and this was not the somber funeral or memorial service we often experience (and some purposely avoid) in the U.S. There was nothing wrong with taking a picture of smiling faces. Mandela will always be remembered as a happy and joyful man in spite of the hardships he endured during apartheid.

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

    This is hilarious!! Also, people take pictures at funerals. Some record funerals. I don't understand the anger here from people who have commented. The only person who looked upset was Michelle, who didn't seem to be included in the conversation. A celebration of life theme should be just that at a funeral. Calm down everyone.

    December 11, 2013 02:22 pm at 2:22 pm |
  13. Alan

    Say you're at an event. No, not a funeral. A 90,000-person celebratory memorial for a man who died of natural causes at the age of 95. You see someone sitting between the POTUS and the PM of Great Britain (who happens to be a political rival of your husband). She asks nicely and records the seating arrangement with her cell phone. Smiles all around.

    Now. If you are offended by what you have seen, I'd suggest that says more about you than it does about the three of them. Seriously, you need help.

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

    This is Obama, therefore people consider it 'harmless'.

    If this was Bush, people would consider it 'tasteless".

    December 11, 2013 02:23 pm at 2:23 pm |
  15. Gary D.

    Probably a little inappropriate to be joking and taking a selfie at a funeral, but honestly, Mandela would not have wanted tears at his funeral either. It's not an issue, but the GOP will make it into something bigger than it really is, of course.

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

    This showed zero respect for the great man, Mr. Mandela.

    December 11, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  17. JoeJoeJoe

    This is just too pathetic. A celebration of a man's life, world leaders gathering, and 3 great leaders joining the celebration with a photograph.. .What is wrong with that again?

    And Republicans still don't understand why people just don't like them!

    December 11, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  18. hardworker45


    An egotistically loquacious narcissist with totalitarian tendencies and desires. Minus experience, the neophyte is more comfortable relying on 'executive edicts' than working with the legislative body, as his predecessors before him. Delights in creating chaos to keep his opponents and the population off balance. Feeling a sense of entitlement, will go to any lengths to acquire power over his subjects. Will say or do anything to promote his objectives, while knowing that his utterances are untrue, and could ultimately be found to be untrue by the masses. As evidenced by his deportment in South Africa, will go to all lengths to self perpetuate himself - even at the expense of others. Has tendencies to act as a spoiled child who will pitch temper tantrums when he does not get his way!

    The picture of the four of them speaks volumes. Bet it will be a long trip back
    to DC with Michelle! She should give him a book on "MANNERS" with a detailed chapter on behavior at funerals.

    But folks, we can only blame ourselves! WE ELECTED HIM ........ TWICE!

    December 11, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
  19. twondako

    Planning to cheat...Michelle caught the vibe and you can see it in her face

    December 11, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  20. O'drama ya Mama

    In my opinion the real story should be about Ted Cruz. His only reason for showing up at the funeral was to make a statement by "walking out" during Castro's speech.

    December 11, 2013 02:25 pm at 2:25 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    This behavior demonstrates outright disrespect during Mandela's memorial service. Just because there's a crowd of people doesn't or shouldn't make it less somber. It's one thing to celebrate and express appreciation for what Mandela represents and what he accomplished, the man he became – perhaps that was the intended mood of the service – but considering that the Obama represents our United States, this behavior just sickens me.

    December 11, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  22. Megamind

    I look at it this way... it's a harmless set of pictures, but the pictures were taken at an inappropriate time and place. This goes for the Prime Ministers as well. When you are a head of state/country, there are times when you must "act the part", and not be a "real human being" (as the article put it). Even though the South Africans were dancing and celebrating, the dignitaries in attendance should not have become over-zealous. To see the president of the United States engaging in this kind of behavior at another country's national event is, well, disappointing.

    December 11, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  23. Name john

    If my wife had a look like that... i would be running for cover!!!

    December 11, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  24. Ray Bowlding

    If your name is Barack Obama and you happen to be the first Black President of the United States, you can find the cure for cancer and someone will find something negative to say about it.
    I saw pictures and video of the South Africans dancing, singing, and celebrating the glorious life of Mr. Mandela. The only reason why this "selfie" is being talked about is because our President was in the photo. It wasn't even the funeral and people are acting like he was "selfing" with the body of Nelson Mandela himself. People will try anything, except acceptance.

    December 11, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
  25. Anna

    If any of you cared, you would have read the story from the perspective of the photographer who grabbed the shot. The memorial service was more a celebration and not very somber. There were people dancing around them and music, so all of these leaders were in the moment.

    December 11, 2013 02:26 pm at 2:26 pm |
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