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. Hueyett

    Well, at least Michelle is consistent in her elitism.

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

    No one complained because Obama is the leader of the US not the Danish Prime Minister.

    Rule of thumb for Selfies. Happy occasions, celebratory occasions.

    December 11, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  3. Linda

    The word "compromise" comes to mind here. All those who say and think that all this bru-ha-ha is for naught, that the president did no wrong, do not see the bigger picture. This used to be a country of the very high morals, social graces, ethics, education, business standards et all. Over the past few decades, we have compromised our high standards down to the lowest common denominator where everything is accepted, without question. As the leader of our country, the president should set a higher standard of behavior by all he says and does: but he does not. Instead of influencing all he comes into contact with towards good moral, ethical etc conduct, he allows himself to be dragged down into the behavioral mire of those steeped / living in, by and for compromised values. In all fairness, it is not only our president (referring to all our visible leaders) at fault, but he is the most visible of all and is viewed as this country's standard and as representing the character of this country's people. Reporting that many at the service for Nelson Mandela were doing similar things does not excuse such behavior by our president. Consider: if your teenage kid said he wanted to go out to a beer bust with friends and you said no, would you relent upon his declaring that all his friend's did so/were allowed to do so, so why can't he? A good parent would just say no and explain why such behavior was not allowed. Just because everyone else does a thing does not excuse it or make it correct behavior. This country really needs to get back to basics before the whole becomes utterly and completely poisoned to the point of no return.

    December 11, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Hmmmm. If I had to choose between the Danish PM and Michele, I know who I would choose....."I'll have the vanilla latte please"

    December 11, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  5. jim

    FACEBOOK CHECK IN!!! Time magazine recently wrote about the narcissistic millennials. Sadly this seems to include our president.

    December 11, 2013 02:45 pm at 2:45 pm |
  6. wayne

    Obama "oh look..a funeral...LETS PARTY!"

    December 11, 2013 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  7. chp

    Don't send a boy where a man/president should go.

    December 11, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  8. Billy Jean

    Classiest. President. Ever.

    Just in! Pres. Obama brings a pork roast to Hanukkah celebration.

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  9. Miriam

    All you Obama haters, get a life. For crying out loud, he can do nothing without some ignorant person making a crude comment. Do you really know what The First Lady was thinking. I think not.

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  10. GulpOff

    And, then, they probably printed the selfie, autographed it and e-mailed it to each other! I shudder :-D!

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  11. ELR

    Maybe he should have pulled a "weekend at Bernie's" and propped Mandela's body up for a photo shoot with him. I'm appalled at the disrespect and the "I'm above the law and social rules" that continue to be demonstrated.

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  12. DENISE

    Its called a celebration for a reason. Why is it that Mr. Cameron is not mentioned in the picture taking event. Everything that President Obama does is scutinized and we know why. There is another man in the picture, but he is not criticized for his actions, why?

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  13. G. T. Simpson

    This was just another classless act on the part of the POTUS! What the heck could he be thinking? You can tell by numerous photos Michelle is not happy with the "mini-party her husband is having with the blonde Norwegian" – you can bet your bottom dollar it was a "long plane ride home." The sooner this clown leaves office – the better for America. The problem is all the damage he has done during his term in office and whether is can be reversed!

    December 11, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  14. Rudy NYC

    Are we sure that's not Cameron Diaz?

    December 11, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  15. Jake Remark

    OMG! What a horrible, horrible man! Acting like a human being and taking a selfie! This is truely an indication that the man cannot lead! How dare he! Oh and he showed common decency and politeness by shaking the hand of Raul Castro. What a horrible thing to do! IMPEACH him NOW!!!!! We can't have a president that is polite and dares to have some fun. That is just not acceptable!

    December 11, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  16. Tommy G

    The Presidency is dimiinished every day that Obama is in office. How this country could have been so, so stupid to have elected him to two terms, is beyond me. The low level of intellignece of a large portion of our population does not bode well for the future of this country. Obama is living proof of that.

    December 11, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  17. Socalphil

    It was a celebration of Madibas life. Did Rush not get his oxy today? Grumpy ? Where are the complaints of the people singing and dancing in front of Mandelas house. If Mandela was alive he would have got a chuckle out of the selfie I am an ex-South African and I understand the culture of celebration at funerals or memorial services. So until you have visited there and studied the culture please dont waste your comments. And in reality about the handshake. Go look in history how many presidents both republican and democrat shook hands with despots before. Please look up who shook Ghadafhi's hand? Sadams hand before you make ignorant comments.

    December 11, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  18. Boomerpa

    Wow! The leader of the free world is human, and has a good relationship with a couple of the leaders of other Democracies! I'm relieved that he felt he could engage with them this way. He hasn't been convicted of cocaine possession, like a recent member of Congress. He's not an addict, like Limbuagh. He hasn't divorced 2 women as a result of affairs, like Gingrich. He hasn't created a fake "association" like Rand Paul. I'll take this anytime over the likes of the Republi-turds!

    December 11, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  19. AndrewM

    CNN get you facts straight... Photo number 7 is obviously doctored. Kenya's First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, was not sitting next to Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt during the memorial service. That seat was occupied by British PM, David Cameron. So how did Mrs. Kenyatta end up there? Photoshop perhaps to sensationalize a story?

    December 11, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  20. John Smith

    Somebody needs to have a time-out so they can get over their hissy fit. Hey Rush – take a pill. The actual inappropriate behavior comes from the selfish talking heads who are using this celebration of life to trash Obama.

    December 11, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  21. capiers

    People relate better to someone they feel are as fallible as they are. Presidents should behave with a level of integrity but at the same time should also appear to be the guy next door. Kings and Queens were not people the masses could relate to on any level and that is one reason why they hold less power in countries around the world

    December 11, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  22. Vusani

    "Gotcha" journalism at work. Not a story.

    December 11, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  23. DENISE

    Get a grip Linda, I am proud of our President and his family. I am sure if Mandela was alive he would be proud of our leaders getting along in his honor.

    December 11, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  24. Mentor

    Tiger Woods is very, very proud of his little grasshopper Barack Obama!! Tiger has taught him well...

    December 11, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  25. A.K.

    Completely inappropriate time for this sort of thing. Phones and personal cameras should be off limits on such an occasion.

    December 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
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