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. Netmonger

    1. Its NOT a funeral. 2. Its not 'all about Obama' has Limbaugh said – theres THREE people in the shot. 3. Does anyone even KNOW if its really a selfie? Might they not be looking at a funny video or picture together? 4. Even if it is - who in their right mind would be offended about 3 global leaders simply wanting to get a picture with the other two?!? Did the dancing and singing offend you too?!? This wasnt a day about being somber – it was a day to celebrate life and the life of an important person. Whats wrong with taking a pic together to do that?!? OMG how pathetic.. How do right wingers even hold up their heads in public any more.. soooo pathetic.. sooo petty..

    December 11, 2013 03:36 pm at 3:36 pm |
  2. skarphace

    Guest: "Obama is so unprofessional. He's always playing when he should be working."

    Don't you get it? That is just what our President was doing. He was mending fences and building friendships between leaders of countries. That is part of a President's job.

    December 11, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  3. Leftcoastrocky

    harmless? tasteless? or who cares?

    December 11, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  4. Pat

    I remember Obama telling American voters on the 2008 campaign trail and debates that he uses good judgment. LOL

    December 11, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  5. Jason

    i expect nothing better from him

    December 11, 2013 03:37 pm at 3:37 pm |
  6. Sniffit

    "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."

    Ah yes, I was wondering when we'd see good ole tom trying desperately to generate a false equivalence between two substantively different things. In the grand scheme of things, Cruz isn't important enough to care, tom, but it's freekin nonsense to pretend that a harmless selfie in the midst of a singing, dancing, cheering celebration is the equivalent of someone walking out on the celebration to make (and score) political points and to set up issuance of political messaging afterwards. Your little game of trying to prove that "both sides do it" and 'both sides are equally wrong" all the time is pathetic.

    December 11, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  7. ljabarr

    I like Obama but it was tasteless to do this at a funeral. I guess he and the others got caught up in the festive environment but regardless it was still a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  8. Malory Archer


    There is a time and place for doing certain thigs and this clearly was/is not the appropiate time.


    Right on tammy – the President should have been wooden and sullen – unlike EVERYBODY ELSE IN THE ENTIRE STADIUM. Honestly, it's no secret you hate him but seriously, you need to get over it before you hurt yourself.

    December 11, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  9. SeattleReign

    Let's see. Which is worse: Obama taking a selfie with other world leaders at a funeral or Bush fondling Andrea Merkel's neck and shoulders at a world summit meeting? Hmmmmmm?

    December 11, 2013 03:38 pm at 3:38 pm |
  10. 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."

    If you're going to post as me, please do so in a manner that at least makes an honest attempt to come close to being as articulate.

    December 11, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  11. Marie

    Once again the GOP right wingers are finding fault in President Obama. So childish, bullying, negative in all regards. Why don't you find something to celebrate in life besides bashing others. Yes I know I called you names too.

    December 11, 2013 03:40 pm at 3:40 pm |
  12. Malory Archer


    As someone who voted for him twice


    Riiiiiight, and I voted for grumpy old man and dim bulb barbie in 2008, and mr. 47% and his living off the government teat for life running mate in 2012. See what I did there?

    December 11, 2013 03:41 pm at 3:41 pm |
  13. z2cents

    I would vote Obama for a 3rd term just watch the losers b1 tch and moan.

    December 11, 2013 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  14. Michael

    Kids play because they don't understand what is happening at funerals. that is exactly what happened here. those jumping up to defend this kind of childish and insensitive behavior need their heads and hearts checked. i bet they are the same liberals who would have condemned G. W Bush be hanged had he done the same idiocy

    December 11, 2013 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  15. Sniffit

    "but regardless it was still a funeral."

    Except, you know, it wasn't a funeral. Not at all. Not in any way, shape or form.

    December 11, 2013 03:43 pm at 3:43 pm |
  16. Katrina Wogoman

    I agree, it's in poor taste but still not as poor as Cruz walking out during the memorial when Castro spoke. Sorry... I don't think the Mandela's are as offended by a selfie and people enjoying themselves during the memorial of a loved one as they are of someone who attempted to make a political statement and showing bitterness during the funeral of someone who stood for something more.

    December 11, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  17. visitor

    If this was Reagan, they would celebrate his breezy charm, or some such nonsense.

    December 11, 2013 03:45 pm at 3:45 pm |
  18. LarryT

    He's just being himself.

    December 11, 2013 03:46 pm at 3:46 pm |
  19. Marie

    I guess he should have been self flagellating. I hope at my funeral people are celebrating my life and not sitting around like a bunch of turds.

    December 11, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  20. Donna

    Im sry but he was in a room full of his own...other world leaders whom they themselves had to wait for a moment where they could speak of this amazing man Nelson Mandela. Im sry but I see no harm because this is what Nelson Mandela lived his life for. Here you see different world leaders being human. There suppose to celebrate his life...not be sad and emo. Have you seen a pic of Nelson Mandela look emo?

    December 11, 2013 03:47 pm at 3:47 pm |
  21. jrzydvl

    @ J Smith
    Deep and personal loss ? Are you kidding ? He doesn't even know who is uncle is....and he lived with him !!! This was in poor taste. He represents the USA. He called Bush a cowboy. What does this make him besids self centered and arrogant. Michelle and Rahm looked least they have manners.

    December 11, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  22. skarphace

    Whiskey Bumps: "Replace Obama in the photo with George W Bush and the American Leftist news would have a whole different take on the photo."

    Bush was there, and he did take a selfie, with Bono. Do you hear "leftists" making anything of that? No. So shut it.

    December 11, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  23. Goaty McCheese

    I am a conservative and I do not like Obama. But I do not see the problem here.

    December 11, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  24. Lord Toronaga

    Who cares. This entire event is way over blown to begin with.

    December 11, 2013 03:48 pm at 3:48 pm |
  25. jim

    Had it been a Republican president, CNN wouldn't be asking that question.

    December 11, 2013 03:49 pm at 3:49 pm |
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