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. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    So what's CNN doing with a teabag Allen, the loser west doing with his fund raiser??????? Ad????? I guess you will do anything for a few bucks, uh, CNN sucks, are you trying to insult the people that voted AGAINEST this teabag goof???????

    December 11, 2013 04:26 pm at 4:26 pm |
  2. MArk

    CNN serious about this article ?!?

    December 11, 2013 04:27 pm at 4:27 pm |
  3. Malory Archer

    Malory Archer

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


    Hello poseur.

    The Real Malory Archer.

    December 11, 2013 04:28 pm at 4:28 pm |
  4. Malory Archer

    My sister has a living will (althought she's healthy and will probably live to be 100). Her will stipulates that NOBODY is allowed to cry at her funeral, and everyone in attendance must sing Jackson Browne's "For a Dancer".

    December 11, 2013 04:31 pm at 4:31 pm |
  5. Olaf Big

    I don't see any problem with Obama, or Rush Limbaugh, for that matter taking a selfie, assuming the latter could fit in the frame without a fisheye lens, but I am getting bored with CNN reporting what happens in the Twitter sphere, rather than in the real world.

    December 11, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  6. Sniffit

    "Sniffit, Racist? Is that all you got anytime...."

    So I take it you're the person who posted it under my moniker in order to t-ball the response you just wrote? That wasn't anyone who reads what I write on a daily basis could tell...and it's fairly obvious that you sockpuppets go around doing it so you can then attack the words you put in peoples' mouths.

    December 11, 2013 04:32 pm at 4:32 pm |
  7. ej

    This was a celebration of life!!!!
    The President was not being disrespectful; but you are.

    December 11, 2013 04:33 pm at 4:33 pm |

    The whole service was put together in a fast food manner. I mean the guy dies and in less than a week you have all these foreign heads of state show up with little or no security, poor sound system and an imposture up in front of the world doing fake sign language.......I doubt a "selfie" would make matters worse.

    December 11, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  9. don in albuquerque

    Way to go CNN, trying to make something out of nothing again. Isn't there a thing called yellow journalism, or is it just that Derwood Issa owns stock?

    December 11, 2013 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  10. Cajun

    Some people hamg on no matter what a President does. Heck, even GWB left office with a 34% approval rating.

    December 11, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  11. Mike Jones

    CCN why don't you report some real news? Like why HSBC Bank go off with only paying a fine for laundrying money for know terrorist groups.

    December 11, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  12. Jon

    President Obama looks like a fun person - his wife, Michelle, not so much.

    December 11, 2013 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  13. The Real Tom Paine

    -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!!
    No, you are just petty and childish, not a racist. But I'm sure that you are a shining example of Emily Post at all times, aren't you?

    December 11, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  14. Richard Right

    The article should have been labeled"Obama selfie at a funeral"

    December 11, 2013 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  15. Billy

    Unfortunately, I recognize that look on the First Lady's face. It meant our beloved president was doing some serious tap dancing later that day. I would have loved to have watched's much more enjoyable watching someone other than myself try and dig themselves out of a deep hole:)

    December 11, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  16. Harry101

    So not a big thing.

    December 11, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  17. Belinda

    Sadly, it was bad form on the part of 3 world leaders. Just a lack of judgment. They are not rock stars, actors, twelve year olds or drunk college kids. They are the leaders of 3 countries in this world (2 pretty major ones). This was wrong. Michelle, thank you for your maturity and for remembering who you were and where you were.

    December 11, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  18. johnny57

    Handshake and "selfie", harmless

    Criticizing the handshake and "selfie", entirely tasteless!

    December 11, 2013 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  19. Sniffit

    "Cruz is simply a senator from a state. He wasn't representing the U.S."

    Well, yes he was...anyone who attends things like this who holds (or held) high office in this country is attending as a representative of the US. That's somewhat of an unavoidable appendage they carry around with them, whether it's fair or not.

    That being said, apparently, you and TRTP, both missed the fact that I truly didn't consider what Cruz did to be a big deal at all. Just because I pointed out that there's a substantive difference between the two things, doesn't mean that I had a problem with it. You should really be a bit more careful with your blanket attempts to make things sound equal when they're not. I agree with TRTP that Cruz had every right to walk out because he feels strongly about it, but that doesn't mean I have to pretend that the photograph, which was completely within the context of the celebratory partying in the stadium, and Cruz walking out, which was very out of context in terms of the celebratory partying in the stadium, are the "same" or "equal."

    December 11, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  20. ReadingisFundamental

    According to the photographer who took the picture:
    1. The picture was taken by the Danish Prime Minister, it's her phone.
    2. Schmidt (Photographer) also pointed out that this was a memorial service, not a funeral: "All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor their departed leader. 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 U.S. or not."

    December 11, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  21. Scott

    The President can't even blink without his opponents making it seem like he is doing it wrong.

    Give it a rest. This is a nonissue.

    December 11, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  22. GaryO

    Why even waste the space? You call this news?

    Of course Right Wing Nut Job Trash complain. It's what they do. It's about all they can do well.

    Concentrating on hand-shaking and a "selfie" shows that Right Wingers have nothing legitimate to complain about.

    . . . Pathetic twits.

    December 11, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  23. Rj Cousin

    OK... would it have been appropriate if DeGaulle and Prince Phillip would have snapped a Selfie at Kennedy's Funeral?

    For the love of all that is good the POTUS is there on Official Business of the United States of America you would think that he would have better judgement than that.... but apparently not.

    December 11, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  24. nanasavi

    Tasteless! Even Tony Soprano knew how to behave at a funeral.

    December 11, 2013 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  25. vic , nashville ,tn

    Answer for this post is watch Jon Stewart

    December 11, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
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