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 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. simplyput

    Michelle Obama looks present, respectful and authentic. Barak Obama looks like a teenager.

    December 10, 2013 01:22 pm at 1:22 pm |
  2. Martin Reese

    You know, For a lot of people (including myself), Funerals are seen as a celebration more so than a moment of mourning. It is okay to celebrate a persons life in their death. Calm down people.

    December 10, 2013 01:27 pm at 1:27 pm |
  3. southerninsanity

    Have mercy, "healthcare." The story is accurate. They are taking a picture of themselves; that is a selfie. They are doing so at a memorial service.

    This has been reported accurately. Get over yourself.

    December 10, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  4. popseal

    Could the American voters found a more internationally embarrassing fool to represent them?! Well, maybe Biden might be worse, but not by much.

    December 10, 2013 01:40 pm at 1:40 pm |
  5. jim

    The woman on the right looks like she really, really wanted to be in the selfie but they wouldn't let her.

    December 10, 2013 01:43 pm at 1:43 pm |
  6. liberal disease

    he takes a photo of himself at a memorial? says it all!!

    December 10, 2013 01:44 pm at 1:44 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    "Obama talked more about himself than Nelson Mandela in his speech,"

    No, he quite literally did not. Apparently, you didn't read it.

    December 10, 2013 01:50 pm at 1:50 pm |
  8. Lady Arcadia

    Bill –
    "I agree with you. If it would have bee President Bush doing this, it would be all over the media as classless, but Obama can do no wrong."
    Except you're completely wrong. Bush DID take a selfie at this same event with Bono. Yet, there are no comments about that.

    December 10, 2013 01:51 pm at 1:51 pm |
  9. Whatup


    December 10, 2013 01:52 pm at 1:52 pm |
  10. A True Conservative

    Obama took a "selfie"! What a shock. And Mama talks about how much class he shows – yea – right.

    December 10, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  11. mypolandtrip

    The President: "Don't worry about sending it to me guys... I'll get it."

    December 10, 2013 01:58 pm at 1:58 pm |
  12. Matt


    December 10, 2013 01:59 pm at 1:59 pm |
  13. Scott

    All three are kissy face selfies, Michelle is not. Michelle looks perturbed. But really, who cares?

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  14. Devon

    NOT classy. He could at least pretend to be sad for the passing of a great man. Can't wait to take selfies at Obama's funeral 😉

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  15. Scott

    Like seventh graders.

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  16. Socrates

    "Obama takes selfie with British, Danish prime ministers". Isn't that cute?

    December 10, 2013 02:00 pm at 2:00 pm |
  17. Crampon

    Last week the libs where whining about the Romney son doing that at a car accident where no one was hurt. Now Obama does it at a funeral.

    December 10, 2013 02:05 pm at 2:05 pm |
  18. Babyboomer

    I love my President but this was inappropriate on the parts of all 3 leaders. While the camera clearly wasn't in his possession, he still shouldn't have participated. What I am glad about is that Mrs. Obama took no part in it. I can just imagine what the folks on the right would have said about that. I suspect her parents taught her not to engage in things like that particularly at a memorial service. I know what my own mother would have thought and I'll bet she knows what her mother would have thought too...

    December 10, 2013 02:07 pm at 2:07 pm |
  19. just bob

    Reagan and the Republican Party voted to keep Mandela in jail and support apartheid.

    December 10, 2013 02:09 pm at 2:09 pm |
  20. tom l

    Mr. Nelson Mandela showed the world what poise, humanity and integrity meant to the healing of a Nation. If only we were as fortunate to have a leader such as he
    Uh-huh, because setting out to obstruct, derail, demean, and disrespect one good leader just wasn't enough for you.
    Yeah...I don't think so.


    Yeah, I know. You're right. Obama has much stronger opposition to him than Mandela had. Thank goodness Mandela didn't have as tough of an opposition as Obama. I don't think we would have ever seen the end of Apartheid in South Africa if repubs were there.

    Your statement demonstrates what an utter failure Obama is. Mandela was able to bring together South Africans. Obama can't bring Americans together. That says more about Obama than anything else you have said.

    December 10, 2013 02:12 pm at 2:12 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    haha...michelle obama doesnt look amused at all.

    December 10, 2013 02:13 pm at 2:13 pm |
  22. Emil Posavac

    "Obama takes selfie." Is this news?

    December 10, 2013 02:14 pm at 2:14 pm |
  23. Charlie

    First, the kill off Brian on Family Guy. Now, Obama takes a selfie with the PM's of Britain and Denmark! We are all doomed!

    December 10, 2013 02:16 pm at 2:16 pm |
  24. Widget in Texas

    Very disrespectful of all three leaders.

    December 10, 2013 02:21 pm at 2:21 pm |
  25. ivan

    SO WHAT ???

    December 10, 2013 02:24 pm at 2:24 pm |
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