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. Jom

    Everyone can shut up who dislike this picture. WE ALL DO IT at funerals. Mandela grandson was dancing, do you have a problem with that? I think not.

    December 11, 2013 03:26 pm at 3:26 pm |
  2. Marklc8

    This is a really slow news day when a selfie is a headline story. Get a clue people...please!

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

    Miltonboy: "Before you express your opinion, defending or criticizing, pause a moment and ask yourself if your opinion would change if it were a Republican president. If so, proceed."

    My opinion would not change. It would still be a nonstory.

    December 11, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  4. Marie MD

    @tellingitlikeitis, the old man from AZ already came out to chastise our president for shaking Raul's hand. What was he supposed to do walk away when he saw Castro? Oh right, rafaelito already had his foreign twit embarrassment moment. That did not count as anything but bad manners. Shows you that having an education does not teach you manners.
    BTW, the old man not only shook hands with gadafi but he bowed to him. I guess his dementia is making him forget his own embarrassing "little"moments. The only difference was that he sought gadafi out.

    December 11, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  5. Shecky

    How disrespectful and unpresidential.
    But what do we expect from our lowlife president?

    December 11, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  6. SnehDavis

    We need jobs! ; something better to worry about! My good friend Kanon Dobo once said, " if people talk about you, that means you are somebody."

    December 11, 2013 03:27 pm at 3:27 pm |
  7. Gaetano

    Hi Cajun,

    Were you at the funeral? Probably not. Like I said this was a celebration of Tata's life. Not your typical North American funeral.

    December 11, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  8. dac

    I'm more interested in the seat change. Seems Michelle did not appreciate the flirting going on. Is anything as it really seems in the world of the rich and famous? I think not. Happy marriage my butt.

    December 11, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  9. Squeezebox

    Would somebody please call Miss Manners? Last I knew, taking photos at a funeral was considered poor taste, but exceptions could be made for news coverage of the death of a world leader, which Mandela was. That loophole doesn't include selfies.

    December 11, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  10. Guest

    Besides being a pathological liar, our president is immature and arrogant. He does like to look at himself.

    December 11, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  11. J Smith

    Nelson Mandela would want everyone to lighten up. Criticizing the president is the shameful act here. Do you really think anyone cared more about Nelson Mandela then Barack? Barack was taking an emotional break from what I'm sure was a deep and personal loss. News flash - Barack is human. Rush Limbaugh, however, may very well not be

    December 11, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  12. glenview0818

    One more product of 24 hour news coverage, a non story made into a "issue". Enough is enough.

    December 11, 2013 03:29 pm at 3:29 pm |
  13. bryan

    he's like a little kid,can,t take him out anywhere

    December 11, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  14. Malory Archer


    Miltonboy: "Before you express your opinion, defending or criticizing, pause a moment and ask yourself if your opinion would change if it were a Republican president. If so, proceed."

    My opinion would not change. It would still be a nonstory.


    Sure would make for a hilarious photo tho' with the cameraman attempting to throw his shoes at the previous occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at the same time trying to capture it for posterity!

    December 11, 2013 03:30 pm at 3:30 pm |
  15. david j ballou

    Get a life people. Do you really think that Mandela was the kind of man that this would bother him.

    December 11, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  16. Joan

    CNN, instead of still running this article, why not a story with a headline stating, "The Photographer Tells the Truth". I guess that wouldn't please half of America. Also, he could be on Anderson Cooper or Jake Tapper's shows and really tell what was happening there. It is like when someone is arrested and it makes headlines but when they are exonerated it makes page eight. Really sketchy journalism. Also, why weren't there more stories about President Obama's exceptional speech? Other countries carried it much better. I know you covered it live but that was through the day when people were working. It should have headlined evening news programs. Why not? This whole coverage has really exposed the journalistic integrity ( or lack of it ) of many in American media today.

    December 11, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  17. Jom

    Well, if some folks dislike this picture, then you all must hate your own family members, friends, etc who come to your love one funerals and afterward take pictures. Haters give it a rest. YOu are making yourselves look silly. Good Job President Obama. And for Michelle, who cares how she looks? People get expresses of people in all kinds of ways and it means nothing. I took a picture where I looked like a crack head but I have a left eye that sometimes get caught shut down when I take pictures.

    December 11, 2013 03:31 pm at 3:31 pm |
  18. Malory Archer


    We have a teenager in the White House.


    Yeah, and she's quite sweet and well-mannered. What's your point?

    December 11, 2013 03:32 pm at 3:32 pm |
  19. skarphace

    holspark: "Would someone tell this Mor-o-n to try ACTING like the President of the US and not some Nim Rod tourist"

    I hate to say it, but your comment says way more about you than it does about our President.

    December 11, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  20. tammy

    There is a time and place for doing certain thigs and this clearly was/is not the appropiate time. Even my teenage nieces know better. These are WORLD leaders (representing thier countries) and the example is appauling. It shows no respect. But what would you expect from our President, always thinking of himself. I am sure if this funeral was for someone in thier family they would not appreciate it being done. There were other photos that were taken and posted of these 2, but more of Danish and Obama and it was like they were there for a comedy show, all the laughing and looking at phone. 2016 cannot get here soon enougjh.

    December 11, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  21. Anonymous

    My first response was to say it is tastless, as I imagine the word funeral as people sitting in a church, crying, and saying goodbye. But did you see the footage of this particular remembrance (funeral) celebration. It seemed more like the Olympics. So I'm sure everyone got caught up in the joyous mood of celebrating Mandela's life, and so now it seems the selfie, was probably not as big of a deal.

    December 11, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  22. NameSarah

    As someone who voted for him twice, i have been very disappointed so far....everyday its something new, he needs to start being a leader.

    December 11, 2013 03:33 pm at 3:33 pm |
  23. get real

    this is not news and you ppl who have a promblem with this is just Racist and dont like the man at all it is not even his phone.

    December 11, 2013 03:34 pm at 3:34 pm |
  24. Malory Archer

    All those here who are clutching their pearls and falling onto their fainting couches in feigned indignation 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 on these threads think he should have – and in a way 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 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
  25. ST

    You haters are all bunch of cherry pickers. Suppose they were taking pictures with Liz Cheney, would you have said something? The Danish PM is really hot. What say you?

    December 11, 2013 03:35 pm at 3:35 pm |
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