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. Ram Ramakrishnan

    Come guys, chill out. all these are human beings and they can be silly at times without caring for anything else. if they took selfie, so what. Your comment shows your own pettiness rather than the action

    December 11, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  2. deee510

    Get a life people.our handsome president is not a stuffy dinosaur get over it

    December 11, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  3. Rob-Texas

    I don't hate Obama, just his policies. No matter what you think of him. Any selfie at a service is inappropriate. Sorry kids, after the service, in the parking lot, later at a bar, etc. During or in a service, just wrong. I know its hard to show respect these days but our President should set the example.

    December 11, 2013 02:27 pm at 2:27 pm |
  4. j

    This is rediculous. If the same 3 people were in a picture together, smiling, and someone else took the photo, there woudn't be any uproar. People are just childishly upset with the word "selfie", because it has a bad reputation. Mandela wouldn't have minded.

    December 11, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  5. phil

    Who cares I've seen weirder things at funerals

    December 11, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  6. hardworker45

    There are six year olds with more mature deportment - especially at a memorial ceremony!

    December 11, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  7. Bolaji

    Get a life, you low-lives. Like the critics of President Obama cared for Madiba or what he championed when he was alive. Do these permanent haters expect President Obama to snub the Danish Prime Minister when she whipped out her camera? Dignifying the critics with print space IS the disservice.

    Rest well, Madiba. Work on, Obama.

    December 11, 2013 02:28 pm at 2:28 pm |
  8. educate yourself

    People should read this entire article before commenting. Learn to read. The problem is that people are ignorant and don't both educating themselves

    December 11, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  9. Luke

    This is incredibly pathetic and disgusting to think there is so many people in the world that would bother to criticize someone or group of people for taking a selfie (regardless of their standing in life). Grow up and welcome to the new age of internet and social media, which has become an integral part of our lives. I have been to many funeral processions (granted never one for a world leader, nor with so many world leaders in one location) and a few of them they were about celebrating with one another. Whether it be drinking, telling jokes, taking pictures, etc. some people prefer to celebrate ones life and mourn the loss of ones life, it is possible to do both. President or not this is a non issue that should never have been made of importance in any way. in fact I believe this is once again the media showing its no apologies, no shame, no respect, very little honesty, and always trying to stir the pot side of themselves.

    As far as flirting, we have no idea whether that is true or not neither do we know if FLOTUS was indeed upset or if the picture happened to be taken at that moment. In my opinion this is sexism at its peak, imagine a world in which a MAN can talk, joke, or take a selfie within another women...NEVER!!! or at least that is what all of you are saying and the media is saying. Pathetic! Now for the part of this being WORLD leaders, do any of you truly believe that with so many people in attendance and the world watching, the President would be flirting with another women with his with right there?

    The answer is simply NO. End of story... The phrase "A picture speaks a thousand words", now could it possibly be that the media CHOSE to capitalize on the "Flirting" "Selfie" "Sour Face" "Funeral" words versus the "Celebration" "Friendship" "Political Bonding" to sell more articles or attack the President himself or satisfy ones own views?

    The answer is simply YES... There is no right or wrong here other than one person trying to push the own point of view on the rest of us. It is a talent the media has nearly perfected and we buy it day in and day out. I am not excluding myself from that grouping of people, however I do stand strong in my belief that someone painted this picture they way they wanted people to see it versus what could have really been going on. It is a portrayal of a FALSE truth, plain and simple. Buy into or don't that is your choice, I myself see this for what it really is... NOTHING at all.

    December 11, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  10. buc

    Seriously. Is this news? CNN continues it precipitous fall into irrelevance.

    December 11, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  11. tonyb

    what a bunch of kiljoys- who friggin cares? Mandela's ceremony was a celebration of his life and accomplishments- not a dirge. Get a life you joy killing twits.

    December 11, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  12. hardworker45

    Mrs. Obama's facial expressions are worth THOUSANDS of $$$$$$$! Would bet that she is going to have a long discussion with her BFF Valerie Jarrett about putting an extended leach on THE ONE. This was not "A MOMENT TO REMEMBER"!

    December 11, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  13. Sniffit

    "Why not just take a picture of the body while you're at it."

    It wasn't there. If it was, I'm sure the thousands of singing, dancing, cheering people in the stadium would all have been trying to get a photo of it by which to remember Mandela and their attendance at this celebration.

    Truly, one might wonder whether the GOP/Teatrolls have any idea just how petty and ridiculous their attempts to criticize this make them look to every single person outside their insular partisan bubble. I mean, sure, the MSM is nothing but a bunch of silly nontroversy parasites latched onto the GOP/Teatrolls' silly attempts to manufacture nontroversies about and opportunities to criticize Obama, and sure, it results in the MSM helping broadcast those nontroversies and bring them to the attention of a broad portion of the Amurikan public, but that's not automatically something that works in your favor, GOPers/Teatrolls. This one makes you look like bath-salts-addled idiots and the only people nodding their heads in agreement with you are your fellow tinfoil hatted GOP/Teatroll basers, which is consistently only about 23%-27% of the public. Grow up (and lay off the bath salts).

    December 11, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  14. Doug

    A person's cellphone should not be out at a memorial service, much less should the owner be acting like a 13-year-old. This is just another case of Obama embarrassing his country.

    December 11, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  15. Miguel

    Not your best moment Mr President. Maybe you could learn a thing or two about class from W. Both you can Clinton have piled on W, while Bush has NEVER said a single unkind word about YOU.

    December 11, 2013 02:31 pm at 2:31 pm |
  16. Karrow

    Really? This is newsworthy because?! How about reporting news/issues that matter and effects us all and not the President taking a picture... It's so trivial and DEFINITELY not worthy of making the news, let alone the cover page.

    I'm bored.. time to find another news outlet that will report things that matters..

    December 11, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  17. getalifepeople

    This is really funny, some people will blame President Obama for last night hangover or stolen garbage can. Get a life people!

    December 11, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  18. Anonymous

    Like a little boy on a school trip. Adults at a funeral!!!?? Give us all a break. Michele is the only one acting appropriately.

    December 11, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  19. Kristen

    Can none of you who are complaining, read??

    "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"

    How on earth does what the 3 of them did not fit into what was just described above? Not surprising, just like pretty much every Republican out there, you cherry pick one moment and put it in the context that you see fit instead of reading the facts.

    December 11, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  20. hillary

    I seem to remember one other president acting classless at a memorial least he had the sensitivity to "act" like he was crying when the camera was on him. The fact is that these "world leaders" are not just "normal people". Their actions carry more weight than others – that's why they supposedly are in the role they are in. Leader and celebrity are not synonyms.

    December 11, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  21. Kasia

    Like a schoolboy on a day trip. Adults at a funeral?? I just dont see it.

    December 11, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  22. James

    First World Problem! There are SURELY more pressing world problems than opinion polls about this. When will people stop trying to immediately assess the importance of every single action taken by every singhle person, and then post that assessment on (probably) their Facebook or Twitter or whatevertheheck page??

    December 11, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  23. Sniffit

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

    Not the GOP/Teatrolls though. They don't want to deal with anything important while he's in office. As far as they are concerned, Amurika must suffer and be punished for electing him and nothing good and no progress can be allowed to take place unless and until they can take all credit for it. Just wait...they'll continue to behave this way from 2016-2024 while they throw a fit over having to call someone "President Clinton" again. They're pretty much done pretending that they want us to be the United States anymore...they want 50 different little countries instead because they're in such deep demographic doodoo with respect to future control over the federal gov't.

    December 11, 2013 02:35 pm at 2:35 pm |
  24. james

    As an African, I can tell you that most funerals at some point or other are a celebration of life in most African cultures. While in America this would seem tasteless, it would be viewed differently in that setting based on the atmosphere/culture. I understand why alot of people would find it distasteful, but that's because they have different views of death and therefore view funerals differently, hence culture. My point is take a chill pill,

    December 11, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  25. Xbalanque

    If this selfie was so harmless, Michelle Obama was sure to let the Danish Prime Minister that Obama did not come alone and sat between the two of them. Obama has so many scandals, why not add another one? He is probably tired of hearing about the Obamacare, Benghazi, IRS, AP and Fast and furious scandals... this man has done a great job as a President?

    December 11, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
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