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. karen

    young president bush took a selfie with Bono at the celebration of Nelson Mendala's life also. I dont see any of you purple kool aide drinking tea party're upset about that. But oh yeah you all cant do anything wrong, hateful, unlawfull... etc. Oh by the way people of the tea party side his name is president obama not mr. obama. Drink some more purple cool aide will your at it

    December 11, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  2. Scott

    Tasteless, hurtful, harmful.

    December 11, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  3. Mel

    Michelle looks so puckered up you couldn't drive a straight pin up her butt with a hammer.

    December 11, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  4. mo

    To me, this is a great down to earth picture of those who have gotten to the pinnacle of the helms of power. Sometimes, these high ranking positions makes success look mystical and those who occupy these seats are super human. this picture has highly disproved that, indicating to us that they are regular humans who do the same things other do.....and yeah..michelle also could have a long face..she is a human being.White house doesnt change your nature. Rather than ranting over nothing and excessively flogging the actions of the first couple and their european contemporaries, my one cent is that we should approach this as people who can relate with the challenges of their similar office and had once in a life time opportunity to whine down and be who they are hoping no one would read unncessary meaning to it...unfortunately that didnt happen.

    December 11, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  5. Pamme

    Wow ! The comments keep growing and growing...what is really apparent to me is that there are a lot of people in the world with a whole lot of time on thier hands. We really get it, and have gotten it since the very first election. You clearly don't like Obama! Perhaps, many of you should look in the mirror before posting hateful, mean spirited comments about things that you clearly don't have a clue about about. Turn off FOX, and go back to school.

    December 11, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  6. Name

    So what

    December 11, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  7. Rudy NYC

    Lowering the bar

    Obama just unilaterally lowered the bar so low that Kanye West could run for president. I am ashamed.
    Sorry, the conservative movement in this country defined the standard when Herman Cain surged to the top of the polls.

    December 11, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  8. Me

    Just shut up Linda! Your lost.

    December 11, 2013 03:05 pm at 3:05 pm |
  9. pat thompson

    He has no class. Taking a selfie and shaking Raul Castro's hand at the funeral are just two of many inappropriate actions our president has done during his tenure.

    December 11, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  10. Gaetano

    GOP out of hand on this one and now that the Obamacare website is up and running they need to find something else to talk about. The funeral was a celebration for those who care to listen to some truth. And what about Ted Cruz getting up and leaving when Castro spoke. Seems to me that he used the funeral to make a political statement. Just give Obama a break!

    December 11, 2013 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  11. Rudy NYC


    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.
    It's not viewed as tasteless. There are a lot people pretending that it is. These sort of celebrations take place in the United States all of the time, most frequently in a city called New Orleans.

    December 11, 2013 03:10 pm at 3:10 pm |
  12. Fish

    Perhaps the first lady was raised as I was, that we must show respect at funerals for the deceased by being solemn. I'm not sure but to this day I still refuse to walk over any grave out of respect which many people say that I'm a nut but I was taught to always show respect at funerals. Playing with gadgets during a funeral is as disrespectful as leaving a cell phone on during a meeting or press conference I would think!!!

    December 11, 2013 03:11 pm at 3:11 pm |
  13. Emc

    This is stupid why is this news? I wasted a minute of my life reading this article. Come on CNN there are more important things going on in the world, who cares if the president is taking a picture of himself.

    December 11, 2013 03:12 pm at 3:12 pm |
  14. Rose

    I see nothing wrong with this, I am amazed that everyone if focusing on Obama and not Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt or British Prime Minister David Cameron but just Obama did wrong. He is not perfect by far but I think Mandela would approve. If this one person would not of seen Obama than nothing would of been said, amazing how people will criticize others and not think what they have done to possibly embarrass someone that was with them. And as far a Rush Limbaugh, the drug addict has no right to complain about someone else when his life took a big turn around. He SMILING Mr. President because this is what you are, a smiling HAPPY man.

    December 11, 2013 03:13 pm at 3:13 pm |
  15. ShawnDH

    Republicans will whine and criticize Obama for what he had for breakfast. Their fake outrage over every little thing lost all meaning YEARS ago. I think this photo is a moment of levity in the 21st-century and perfectly fine.

    December 11, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  16. Dave Taylor

    This was a celebration of his life and to honor the man. With the singing and dancing going on in the background, I think he would smile at this as he looks down.
    However, when you take Sen. Cruz who praised Mandela in a statement earlier which was great. Then walkout out when the Cuban leader spoke. Was inconsistent and inserting politics was definitely wrong.

    December 11, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  17. Bob

    Barack is ghetto and always will be.

    December 11, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  18. chickenhead

    What do you expect from a clueless "hip" President that goes on talk shows like a celebrity. People need to wake up!

    December 11, 2013 03:14 pm at 3:14 pm |
  19. Get A Life

    I think this is being blown way out of proportion! I don't really like or agree with President Obama, but this is simply a case of being human and interacting with friends. Like the photographer stated, for those of you who bothered to read to the end, the atmosphere was one of celebration not morning. the First Lady was enjoying a conversation with everyone in the photo just prior to it being taken. Don't judge the entire situation or character of a person based on one photo. There are much much much more important things to be concerned with right now. The leaders of our countries are people just like us, they are not gods, expect them to act human!

    December 11, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  20. Jerry

    How about tasteless, stupid and self-serving?! Oops! Sorry, sorry, I forgot this was Mr. Obama!!!

    December 11, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  21. narutogrey

    What isn't shown is that there were literally hundreds of other world leaders that were also taking selfies and other photos at the funeral. The pictures that showed a wider view of the funeral showed many people taking cell phone photos. Also, apparently it was one of those positive atmosphere photos, so there were music and games.

    December 11, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  22. sofork

    I bet Michelle took flirting Obama to the woodshed that night.

    December 11, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm |
  23. sisterchef

    Good to know that someone named Linda does not know the difference between taking a photo and underage drinking. Forewarned is forearmed. On a serious note, what would have happened if, asked to be in the photo, any one of the people had said, "no.?" Headlines, I am sure, that said, "Leader rebuffed by (fill in the blank)," would have ensued. Come on. It isn't even a slow news day.

    December 11, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  24. Cajun

    Totally inappropriate at a FUNERAL! A wedding fine but a funeral no. Have some decorum like Michelle.

    December 11, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  25. CabRene

    We have a teenager in the White House.

    December 11, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
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