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. Melissa

    Who cares, it's a photo.

    December 11, 2013 03:16 pm at 3:16 pm |
  2. sam

    It's harmless and tasteless.

    December 11, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  3. annoyed999

    My God....what an example for the rest of the world. This lame-ash sorry excuse for a Potus can't leave soon enough. Can't we impeach this idiot for the Benghazi debacle alone?

    December 11, 2013 03:17 pm at 3:17 pm |
  4. ShawnDH

    Rudy NYC whined: "Lowering the bar. Obama just unilaterally lowered the bar so low that Kanye West could run for president. I am ashamed."

    Whatever. As am American. I'm ashamed of you. Obama took a PHOTO!!!! That's MUCH worse than invading a country for lies. Yawn.

    December 11, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  5. Master Baker

    It would appear that President Obama prefers Danish pastry to his usual Black Forest cake...

    December 11, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  6. Tom

    IF a person was laughing and joking honoring the deceased, I would see no issues with the moment with the 3 leaders; HOWEVER, it would seem that the only people being 'honored' by our President, was himself and two other immature 'leaders' who apparently forgot why they were attending this event. KUDOS to the First Lady who seemed the most mature of this group, and I hope it was HER idea to separate the juveniles so they didn't resort to passing notes in class. Shame on you Mr. President – is this how you honor the memory of Mr. Mandela?!?

    December 11, 2013 03:18 pm at 3:18 pm |
  7. nvmature

    Tasteless…but harmless.

    December 11, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  8. ShawnDH

    Scott whined: "Tasteless, hurtful, harmful. Pigs."

    Awwww. Yeah, I'm sure you're really hurt. Did you hear the HUGE ovation Obama got in South Africa? I guess they're okay with him. Nice try, though.

    December 11, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  9. Holy Batman

    It was so rude to take selfie at the funeral. It was like he is happy that Mandela is dead.

    December 11, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  10. NWO

    This is completely in bad taste and disrespectful to Nelson Mandela, a man who has given half his life in uniting South Africa. If Bush did something like that the dems would be wailing and screaming bloody murder.

    December 11, 2013 03:20 pm at 3:20 pm |
  11. Malory Archer

    All those here who are clutching their pearls and falling onto their fainting couches do not see the bigger picture. What's considered "inappropriate behavior" in the United States isn't seen that way amongst the rest of the world. Everyone in the stadium was applauding and celebrating the long, distinguished life of someone they greatly admired. Had President Obama been somber and approached it like some people on these threads think he should have – and like NOBODY ELSE IN THE ENTIRE STADIUM BEHAVED, those same people would be trashing him for being an "elitist" and disrespecting the deceased and his family/supporters. These are the same people who would accept an invitation to dinner at a foreign host's home and then turn their noses up at the food being served or demand the host provide different food because it's not what 'Muricans eat. Remember, when in Rome...

    December 11, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  12. RK

    It is not as bad as what some kids and adults are doing with the technology and their selfies.

    December 11, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  13. Gene

    Compared to what he is doing to our country, I'd say it doesn't even rate as anything but, it does represent his narcissism to a small degree.

    December 11, 2013 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
  14. Lalena

    Mr. Obama is our President, he does his best. When you look at the pictures one can see it is our First Lady that is disprectful this was a celebration of the life of Nelson Mandela.. he lived 95 years!
    In these days and times there is no time for such public actions.
    Further when he greeted Mr. Castro it really showed our young President has offically put on his Big Boy Pants understanding this is our neighbor.. we as a people can hate forever or make it work ...
    creating a safe world for our children and their children... 10 Points for our young President...

    December 11, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  15. Djhfho;a

    lmao atleast we know that we don't have a uptight president like we always do.

    December 11, 2013 03:22 pm at 3:22 pm |
  16. DC Guy

    Not a huge deal, but it seems to be something more "teenager-ish" than "world leader-ish". Trust me that the First Lady let him know the deal when they left.

    December 11, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  17. Dog-in-Chief

    Not only inappropriate for the occasion but down right disrespectful to Michelle Obama. Michelle needs to restrict Obama's contact with Tiger Woods and Bill Clinton. He is picking up some very bad habits. Time for a trip to the woodshed.

    December 11, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  18. Malory Archer


    Tasteless, hurtful, harmful.


    Right on Scott. IMO the rethugs should cut it out because they're only making themselves look pathetic with their feigned indignation, but then part of me wants them to continue because they only expose themselves for the petty haters they are.

    December 11, 2013 03:23 pm at 3:23 pm |
  19. Lewis

    Really, I don't think that it's the end of the world. Really I question why this is news.

    December 11, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  20. ShawnDH

    OMG! Obama took a PICTURE! And smiled!

    That's WORSE THAN HITLER!!!!

    December 11, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  21. skarphace

    Oral Pavlov: "I think our president should have Rush Limbaugh as his new pr and front man."

    Worst idea ever.

    December 11, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  22. American

    I think the whole fuss is about the fact that there are so many ppl out of job and can make something out of nothing.. People GO AND GET A JOB – McDonald is hiring!!!

    December 11, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    This only proves how some idoits are so desperate to put down President Obama. What the President did is no different than what we all do at funerals/memorials. SHut up haters. You are looking more stupid by the minute especially Foxnews. I think the average person understand what President but the haters want to find fault. It does not matter. If President Obama would not have spoke or took a picture, those same haters would still be talking trash about the president not taking pictures.

    December 11, 2013 03:25 pm at 3:25 pm |
  24. Sniffit

    All of you people posting against the President are all just racists that can't stand a black POTUS. Admit it, you're racists. Tell the truth racists.

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

    Nelson Mandela would want everyone to lighten up. Criticizing the president is what's shameful here. Barack did nothing wrong. Do you really think anyone cared more about Nelson Mandela then Barack? People need to move on. The president was taking an emotional break from what I'm sure was a deep and personal loss. New flash - our president is human. Rush Limbaugh however, may not be.

    December 11, 2013 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
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