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. Brad-Ashe

    Slow news day I guess...

    December 11, 2013 04:07 pm at 4:07 pm |
  2. Old favorite

    Sniffit pls punch the race card some more... Good grief.....

    December 11, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  3. Malory Archer

    Isn't using Obama and selfie together rather redundant? Obama is the living breathing embodiment of a selfie.

    December 11, 2013 04:08 pm at 4:08 pm |
  4. IronMaiden78

    WHY WOULD YOU TAKE A SELFIE AT SOMEONE'S FUNERAL??????!!!!!! That anyone is turning this into a major act of diplomacy on the President's part is CRAZY. SO TASTELESS! I'm convinced that most of our world leaders are IDIOTS – but apparently so are their loyal supporters.

    December 11, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  5. Bill D

    The selfie didn't cause any harm. It's simply behavior I wouldn't expect in the middle of a memorial service or funeral, especially from the POTUS, but as I stated, it didn't cause any harm.

    December 11, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  6. muri

    Straws; keep grasping at them.

    December 11, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  7. Rudy NYC

    @ShawnDH – You're barking up the wrong tree at me.

    Rudy NYC posted

    Lowering the bar wrote:

    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 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  8. Mike

    Can't it be both? It's not the end of the world, but it's still a bit tasteless. Why does it have to be 1 extreme or another?

    December 11, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  9. JanB

    Shame on you CNN for starting this very shameful dialogue. If you want to win elections, you right wing bloggers, start acting like intelligent human beings.

    December 11, 2013 04:12 pm at 4:12 pm |
  10. Rudy NYC

    Sniffit wrote:

    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.
    It is pretty tough to explain why they've chosen to focus solely on Pres. Obama, and not the other PMs, too.

    December 11, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  11. John

    Sorry Rush....Mandela loved Obama and who he was, and he would have hated you even more if he had met you....after all you had ABSOLUTELY nothing in common with him.............

    December 11, 2013 04:15 pm at 4:15 pm |
  12. ThinkAgain

    Oh, for Pete's sake – let it go! The selfie was taken far into the gathering, when many people were talking and dancing.

    For all you RWNJs trying to make this into an issue, check out Shepard Smith's take on it. He works for Fox – and nailed it on this one.

    December 11, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  13. Jom

    The man was 95 years old. IT WAS A CELEBRATION. I took picture at my 90 year old grandmothers funeral even my father who was her son. Get over it. People do it.

    December 11, 2013 04:17 pm at 4:17 pm |
  14. TSB8C

    Truly tasteless, and Michelle obviously thought so as well. More evidence of Obama's narcissism.

    December 11, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  15. BeverlyNC

    What a completely worthless story. He took a photograph the Danish Ambassador wanted with him. So what? He shook hands with Castro's brother who was sitting in the row beneath him. It was a simple gesture of human politeness. Mandela was a man who even invited the man who imprisoned him to his own inauguration as President of South Africa and you want to get petty and pictures and handshakes? McCain calling President Obama "Hitler" for the handshake? McCain shook hands with Ghaddfi. He betrayed the nation running an ignorant extremist who knew nothing about our government or could not find other countries on a map as VP – the embarrassing Palin.
    Republican hate, lies, disrespect and obstruction of every program to help the People just to obstruct it is VERY old and shows no character, integrity, or leadership. Let's stop the nonsense. No more Republicans in 2014.

    December 11, 2013 04:19 pm at 4:19 pm |
  16. Ashamed

    his poor children... to see their father demean their mother like this in front of the entire world.

    December 11, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  17. John

    Sniffit, Racist? Is that all you got anytime someone comes down on President obama you guys hide behind Racist it does not work. The color of his skin makes no differance what so ever. Fact is he is the President he is at a memorial as the President of the United States he represent the people of the United States and should act like it. Not some college frat kid. Damn use some common sense I know liberal have none but at least Try to use a bit of it. Other US presidents where there as well and did not act like a fool

    December 11, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  18. Loraine

    WHATS WRONG WITH TAKING A SELFIE??? I mean, the act itself is harmless... Its the Media that blew every bit out of proportion trying to make a big news out of it when really THERE'S NOTHING WRONG ABOUT IT!! THE DAY IS FOR MANDELA AND SO IT WILL ALWAYS BE FOR HIM... BUT THE STUPID MEDIA TURNED INTO SOMETHING ELSE!! Just cause he's President of the USA doesn't mean HE CAN"T TAKE A SELFIE Anytime he wants!! MEDIA, JUST STOP ASSUMING THE WORSE OF EVERYTHING!! YOU ARE THE ROOT OF EVIL IN THIS PLANET!!!

    December 11, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  19. Standard Issue

    How many of you on this board would take a "selfie" photo at someone's memorial service?

    December 11, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  20. South GA Girl

    Then I guess I'm a racist. What Obama did was just another childish act that once again showed he was not 'presidential caliber' socially or mentally. But then, his wife shown eating with her mouth open and talking with a mouthful of food was nauseating and childish also. What poor examples for our children!!

    December 11, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  21. Sam

    Limbaugh (and the like) will find something wrong with whatever the President does. That's who he is. Does anyone believe that he would have said anything if that had been a Republican president?

    December 11, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  22. John

    Rudy NYC, because the PM of Denmark or where ever she is from is not a concern of the United States he is the President at least act like it.

    December 11, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  23. NW721

    I just don't get it at all!
    I mean, what's the big damn deal about the Obama snapping a selfie at Mandelas memorial service???
    Mandela was all about life, and I've seen lots of smiles on his face through photography.

    I've seen people take happy pictures at funerals many times. Why all of a sudden, people are making a big deal out of something that is so common?

    Some people are making a big deal out of something that I'm sure Mandela would embrace and that is happy spirits.
    Everybody mourn in their own time and ways. I doesnt mean you should be sad forever.

    Whenever my time comes, I would rather be surrounded by smiling faces and happiness rather than my soul be surrounded by sadness.

    December 11, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  24. Paul

    Than man is being human. This is nonsense.

    December 11, 2013 04:24 pm at 4:24 pm |
  25. Sniffit

    "Rudy NYC

    Sniffit wrote:

    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.
    It is pretty tough to explain why they've chosen to focus solely on Pres. Obama, and not the other PMs, too."

    Hehe...that wasn't even me, Rudy. Just another Teatroll thinking they're being clever "borrowing" the moniker to put words in my mouth.

    December 11, 2013 04:25 pm at 4:25 pm |
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