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. Ashlee

    Nelson Mandela is easily one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen. Obama is a joke and will never be in the same category as Mandela. Maybe focus on celebrating Mandela's life instead of taking selfies. Common sense.

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

    Harmless or tasteless? Depends. If you hate Obama, it's the equivalent of dropping an atomic bomb on innocent people and then laughing. Personally, I think it's neither. It's not news, and it's not important. Criticize something that is really important.

    December 11, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  3. jim

    what a joke. i can't believe this guy.

    December 11, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  4. FrankinSD

    Not only was it a celebration (of life) that they were attending, the ceremonial part was over and IT'S NOT EVEN OBAMA'S PHONE. HE ISN'T ALLOWED TO HAVE ONE!

    December 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  5. Dave Ruth

    This article seems to be much ado about nothing.

    December 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  6. Jason

    This is why we have a "no smiling" policy at our family funerals. Always leave your humanity at the door, I say.

    December 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  7. Gpaul50

    Everything this President does is held to such a level of scrutiny as to be almost comical. I can't believe he wanted to endure 4 more years of it. It's beyond ridiculous.

    December 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  8. Dave James

    The crybabies out there ( John McCain and others ) and bored bloggers really need to get a grip

    December 11, 2013 02:38 pm at 2:38 pm |
  9. Get use to IT! 3 more yrs spew u hate @Obama

    what's next to hate the president about?

    ...a selfie, a handshake, a poop, his blackness....whats next my gop tea potty lemmings?

    keep lapping this non-story up and showing all your hatred & anger @ librul Obama...oh, wow America is coming to an end cuz the prez took a pic. get a life folks!!! LOL

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  10. kenny

    omfg... i can't believe it... the pres and other world leaders are ... exactly like us... sometimes.... shouldn't they be better though... all the time... ALL THE TIME...

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  11. spoo

    Here, it is Michelle at fault, she is the one with an embarrassing 'jeta", a smile would have fitted better to her stature as first lady.

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  12. thewiz_71

    I gotta say – it may be a bit inappropriate, but not overly much. That being said, in the 6th picture above, Kofi Annan (at least I think that's him), doesn't look too happy about it, either.

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  13. akka1234

    Anywhere there is a camera... Obama is his own biggest fan – loves to watch those watching him. And to Blair – appreantly he DOES NOT know how to conduct himself at a funeral. A little more is expected of the President of the United States. Typical Obama fashion – classLESS...

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  14. Kimberly Weibel

    Can you even imagine what the fallout would have been if Bush had taken a selfie?

    December 11, 2013 02:39 pm at 2:39 pm |
  15. R Burns

    Maybe a bit less than formal, but Obama is human and we shouldn't expect him to be perfect. I wonder how desperate the media is to make this into a crucifixion. Can't they find some other way to sell stories? Michelle's supposed reaction looks like a typical husband/wife thing to me, which every marriage has some of . Leave them be!

    December 11, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  16. Name

    I was curious as to what the Obama- bashers have to say, not a bit of a surprise. You know nothings should really get your closed and narrow minds away from your own need to feel empowered, or put another way, get your head out your ass. Who does more injury to our country, a president who by EVERY standard is working his presidential ass off, or a racist elitist whiner who dosent know a thing about political science, or life. GOD BLESS THE U.S.A. AND MAY GOD BLESS OUR PRESIDEBT.

    December 11, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  17. jj milton

    I had no idea you could have a job with CNN writing articles about people taking selfies. This is amazing; where do i submit an application?

    December 11, 2013 02:40 pm at 2:40 pm |
  18. Daniela

    I would have loved to have seen this play out -Mrs. Obama looks a bit disturbed -did she see this happening and turn the other way -did she try to stop him...what happened in the moments before this?

    December 11, 2013 02:41 pm at 2:41 pm |
  19. Danlien

    WHO CARES! Not newsworthy.

    December 11, 2013 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  20. Richard Long

    The look on Michelle's face in the pictures is PRICELESS!

    Stay classy, Barry...

    December 11, 2013 02:42 pm at 2:42 pm |
  21. Evelyn Connaway

    What a bunch of stupid news people and constant gripers, about every move President Barack Obama makes. Grow up and mind your own business. Who asked you to put your two cents worth in the mix. It wasn't a funeral, just a Memorial of Mandela's life, rather like and Irish "Wake", but I didn't see anyone tipping their glass to Mandela.

    December 11, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  22. marcus

    yea a non story...but the speech he gave was truly terrific.any articles about that.....hello

    December 11, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  23. charles Gannon

    And this is the same man who ordered the nation's flags to half staff for foreign national.

    December 11, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  24. thatguy

    a funeral is often to celebrate a life that has been completed, not necessarily to mourn their passing. It is much different when someone is taken before their time, which was not the case here.

    December 11, 2013 02:43 pm at 2:43 pm |
  25. Lisa P.

    Harmless. The only people who are offended (or are pretending to be) are the ones who find - actively search for, in fact - a way to criticize absolutely everything that President Obama does or says, including the words "and" or "the." They are the ones who need to learn from Nelson Mandela's example. So much of his greatness came from his ability to understand and forgive humankind's flaws; I think that's because he recognized some of the same flaws in himself, and was certainly willing to indulge them with good humor in himself and others (remember the Golden Rule) as long as they didn't interfere with his larger goals of justice and equality. That's what reconciliation is about: letting go of the petty stuff so you can achieve the big stuff. Even world leaders get to act silly sometimes (see some of Vladimir Putin's pictures, for example). I like to think that if Mandela had been able he would have joined in that picture; heck, for all I or you or anyone else knows he did 🙂

    I agree that it doesn't look like Michelle Obama was feeling the silliness. That's o.k. Everyone gets to experience things in their own way, and I'm sure she's used to her husband's weird sense of whimsy by now. No reason to sweat the small stuff.

    December 11, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
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