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 Beyoncé– 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. Terry

    Really??? With all that needs to be done to address the world's problems, the media takes time to make this an issue? I've practically stopped watching CNN because of the amount of nonsense that exists. I guess I'll cut back on reading the website as well. (This includes MSNBC, FOX, CBS, ABC.......) They all think the business they are in is entertainment and it's all about the ratings.

    December 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  2. Name dave bullman

    . ..what a shallow pudgy idiot!!! Getting fatter and more irrelevant every day. FOX SUX but I still watch it

    December 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  3. TrudyBird

    If this man would cure cancer he'd be criticized.

    December 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  4. LC

    Completely tasteless ... not surprised that Obama would do this ... and not surprised that he would shake hands w/ Raul Castro. Last I checked his approval rating was 38% ... he and his blind liberal followers will probably blame Bush.

    December 11, 2013 02:55 pm at 2:55 pm |
  5. Bregginkrak

    Poor decision on the Presidents part, but end of the world, I think not. This doesn't deserve any airtime. We should be focusing on how to fix the real problems the country and world face.

    December 11, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  6. Rob

    Obama is the worst president since Martin Van Buren. He is an embarrassment to this country. Michelle is nothing but an angry, mannish-looking heifer.

    December 11, 2013 02:56 pm at 2:56 pm |
  7. anyone else tired of this

    Politicians party with dictators and celebrate the death of a mass murdering terrorist at tax payer expense to celebrate "freedom" while the NSA Gestapo grips this country with an iron fist.

    Its time for both parties to go! They've both took turns ripping us off and becoming multi millionaires doing so. We need people who represent us, not Homicidal Robber Barons bought and sold by lobbyists and banks.

    December 11, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  8. Southsider1

    Those that are easily offended or get upset whenever hearing the President's name will be mad.

    Level headed people will think nothing of it.

    December 11, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  9. sdlover

    It just looks very undignified for world leaders to be doing this and at a memorial service no less. Selfies are most popular with teenage girls and that's sort of the image it conjures up when you see this photo. Is it a big issue? No. But to me, it's uncomfortable to see this picture of our president doing this.

    December 11, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  10. steve

    looks like the 3 Stooges. nyuk nyuk.

    December 11, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  11. drmy91

    Really, arent there more important thing to worry about. Who cares if the President does a selfie? People need to get over themselves and move on.

    December 11, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  12. Gurgyl

    USA morale went to drainage tubes. Nothing wrong with Obama, sheer GOP garbage in USA.

    December 11, 2013 02:58 pm at 2:58 pm |
  13. clevercandi

    Reminds me of when Mom used to separate us in church for not listening to the preacher ramble on and on. 😉

    btw, Mr. Limpball, we are still waiting for you to leave the country as promised since Mr. Obama was re-elected. What's the holdup??

    December 11, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  14. Jay Nair

    I wonder why people interpret this as an immoral act. USA should be proud that the President is young and can have smart moments which are characteristic in a society which celebrates death by enjoying the life of the dead and reliving it. It requires a broad understanding mind to accept the concept and alas, Linda does not possess one. Obama has been a President exuding dignity and seriousness and his eulogy on this occasion is unmatched.

    December 11, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  15. Anonymous

    No twerking was involved and I think this is simply an attempt to create news.

    December 11, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  16. tom l

    Let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory have no problem with this while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think this is horrible.

    Oh, and let me guess, people like Rudy, The Real TP, Sniffit, DMFO, rs, Tampa Tim and Mallory think what Cruz did was the worst thing in the world while people like Donna, a True Conservative and Just Sayin think he did the right thing.


    December 11, 2013 02:59 pm at 2:59 pm |
  17. Sniffit

    "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?"

    WOW! That analogy is so horribly broken it's disgusting. You just did exactly what I've been saying this all is: judging South African culture and trying to hold it up to our own cultural values as if we're right and they're wrong. This wasn't underaged drinking. This was an entire country dong what they do culturally in response to the loss of people they love: they celebrate, party, sing, dance, think of the joy that person brought to their lives, etc., instead of focusing on their sadness and the fact that the person is gone and they don't get to have that person in their lives anymore. Your statement shows in stark relief that you and the rest of the conservative do indeed feel you have the right to judge the thousands of people in that stadium who were singing, dancing, partying, etc., that you do indeed think it is your values that control here, not the cultural norms and mores of the South African people. It's disgusting and insulting to them and such a gross display of American arrogance and the American superiority complex that it's a wonder CNN hasn't pulled this article down and scrubbed their site of the entire comment section. America is not the world's parent to \"just say no and explain why such behavior was not allowed." South Africans have every right to celebrate Mandela's life and passing any way they want...he and their culture belong to THEM, not to you or America. You people are why the world looks at us like self-important, arrogant bullies, racists and bigots.

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  18. tom

    People are making a big deal of this? Seriously? Exceptionally petty. Just further proof that some people have Obama Derangement Syndrome.

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  19. drmy91

    This is so stupid. Why does anyone care about this? Who give a crap about a selfie? You people have too much time on your hands to write a book complaining about our President. Get over yourselves and worry about what is wrong in YOUR LIFE!

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  20. landy

    Seriously people how often do World leaders get together without having some speech or paperwork problems we have to deal with. Let's not forget they are human beings too and I've seen people do all kind of silly things at either a parent/sibling/friend/spouse funeral.

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  21. Common Sense

    Those that don't like Obama will find anything and everything to criticize. Most Memorial Services are mostly quiet, but just look around that Stadium. The people all were joyous, singing and celebrating (key word) their leader's life . So the atmosphere was not somber, but of elation. Thus, The President was fully involved.
    Did one not see the ovation he received.? We should be proud that the world outside the US likes and admires him.

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  22. anon

    I'm not going to make a big deal about it, other then to say that if it had been done anywhere OTHER then a funeral, it wouldn't have been so bad.

    December 11, 2013 03:00 pm at 3:00 pm |
  23. Rudy NYC

    For the last time,

    -The event was a memorial celebration of the man's life. The FUNERAL IS SUNDAY.
    -The atmosphere in the stadium was comparable to a carnival, complete with sections of the audience singing on their own.

    -You right wigners have completely forgotten to lodge formal whines against either PM Cameron or PM Thorning-Schmidt.

    December 11, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  24. jeff

    No Big Deal, Just the Republicans throwing more ssst up against the wall and seeing if any of it sticks. It doesn't matter what the President does, to them somethings always wrong with it, they live for this stuff, I would think he did something wrong if they agreed with him on anything.. They are all lower than whale shet, have no morals or respect for anybody but the rich, no one really cares what they think, they will soon be irrelevant and in the dust bin of history where they belong. None of them had the guts to say what the president said in his SPEACH about leaders jailing political prisoners etc. Nothing but crickets.....If you can't even shake someones hand how would you ever be able to work out anything with anyone, this is so 5th grade and stupid, no disrespect to 5th graders intended.

    December 11, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
  25. DZenn

    Although I don't agree with some of the decisions made by the President, I admired the fact that he presented himself in a professional manner even in less than professional environments (hecklers).. Now, I'm not so sure that was a correct assessment!! They could have at least waited until after the event..

    December 11, 2013 03:02 pm at 3:02 pm |
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