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 Beyoncé– 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. VEW2012

    Actually the memorial service was a free-for-all celebration with people blowing vuvuzelas, dancing, singing, and celebrating Mandela's life. This might not be the American style, and I really don't understand a reason for making this photograph an issue, other than the pettiness on the right....or anything to milk a news story for the last dredge of coverage, Moving on from the actual coverage to what others are reporting about the coverage, and then throw in that lame clown that works for Faux. I would imagine a lot of photographs were taken during the Mandela memorial....and someone needs to look up the translated meaning of Vuvuzelas.

    December 11, 2013 05:43 pm at 5:43 pm |
  2. joedog

    It can be both harmless and tasteless; but the sycophants in the media will cover for his crude and rude behavior at a funeral of great importance. The term selfie is the best way to describe their behavior. It is all about HIM, except when asked about major events that he must learn from reading the newspapers the day after the event. What a sham.

    December 11, 2013 05:45 pm at 5:45 pm |
  3. OKinky

    Putting the moves on a blonde or flirting with her while sitting next to your wife? Obama is even dumber that I thought he was. Even more clueless than I thought he was. And I didn't think my opinion of him could get any worse. He never fails to fail.

    December 11, 2013 05:46 pm at 5:46 pm |
  4. Brent Walker

    It's a real indicator of the corrosion of our society that people will read negativity into things they have no understanding of. A little imagination could create dozens of headlines for this photo–NONE of them accurate. It's just sad that they mostly end up being caustic. Our society is on the skids. I blame Fox.

    December 11, 2013 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  5. Blushing

    Just our Pres being his usual silly self ... nothing new, move on.
    Ignore Sniffit... racism, really? Nothing substantive to say, so play the race card. Sniffit needs a new playbook.

    December 11, 2013 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  6. VEW2012

    When I go I expect them to hire a rock'n'roll band, hold a pig roast, and do it up in is called "a celebration of life".

    December 11, 2013 05:47 pm at 5:47 pm |
  7. sonic10158

    goodness, it is just a picture.

    December 11, 2013 05:48 pm at 5:48 pm |
  8. BO

    I really really really miss the true statesman GW Bush.

    December 11, 2013 05:49 pm at 5:49 pm |
  9. Josh

    Anyone else absolutely terrified of Michelle in these pictures??????

    She mad? Oh, she mad.

    December 11, 2013 05:50 pm at 5:50 pm |
  10. leo

    There is a time and place for everything , a funeral isn't the place for school yard behavior.

    December 11, 2013 05:54 pm at 5:54 pm |
  11. Elaine

    Thank making something out of nothing.

    December 11, 2013 05:56 pm at 5:56 pm |
  12. grassroot

    It's great for the self absorbed.

    December 11, 2013 05:58 pm at 5:58 pm |
  13. harleydavidson

    Tastelss but no biggie. I did not vote for obama. Don't blame me. There are more important issues to cover. Let's move on.

    December 11, 2013 06:00 pm at 6:00 pm |
  14. Lisa P.


    How about tasteless, stupid and self-serving?! Oops! Sorry, sorry, I forgot this was Mr. Obama!!!
    December 11, 2013 03:15 pm at 3:15 pm
    Don't be silly - you didn't forget for a microsecond that this is President Obama. You live to find dumb reasons to hurl public insults at him. I have no doubt sure this News Corp. non-story made your week. It's so meaningless, and can be twisted to confirm so many of your baseless prejudices, that we'll probably keep hearing about it for months and months, until Fox feeds you some new piece of nonsense to spew about.

    I will give you this - at least you're not trying to imply that President Obama is having some sort of sexual relationship with the British and Danish Prime Ministers. I congratulate your irrational hatred on its' sense of propriety and restraint. Many others seem to be letting their ids hang out (all out!) in full view: not a pretty sight.

    December 11, 2013 06:03 pm at 6:03 pm |
  15. mayfiat

    the "left" is never petty

    December 11, 2013 06:05 pm at 6:05 pm |
  16. PJ

    In everything he says and does he represents The United States of America – and now he represents how America behaves at a funeral... He's disgraced and disappointed so many times that its become the norm and people, as evidenced in many of the comments, have become complacient and accepting about his behavior – not even expecting him to behave in a dignified respectful manner.

    December 11, 2013 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  17. Robert Thew

    Again, it was not so much about the selfie,OK so maybe it was, but more so about the two of them flirting at the memorial. Michelle's face tells the whole story,if your married you've seen it before. I'm sure he is in the dog house, move over Bo! LOL

    December 11, 2013 06:06 pm at 6:06 pm |
  18. Blake

    What are people talking about a funeral? Funeral? State Funeral? No such thing has happened yet, only visitation today. It was a celebrative memorial at a stadium where most of the event was 4 hours of dancing and singing with speeches and applauses in between. It wasn't a State Funeral, it was essentially a large scale wake. That's why many dignitaries were dancing and laughing (Like former Canadian PM Kim Campbell). If you have problems with a selfie for 5-10 seconds of 4 hours, then you should have a problem with the entire event and everyone there. It was people from all walks of life coming to have a good time while remembering the good things about Mandela.

    The media and political opponents, by misrepresenting the atmosphere of the event, are using this photo to attack the three leaders and make them look selfish to sell more papers, political views or get more ratings and many are falling for it. This is like when paparazzi run a story "Actor attacks Journalist!!!!" and they don't tell you it was one of them, who was in said actors face for 30min, talking down his family snapping pictures of them during private moments. Instead the headline is "Obama and friends act like its a PARTY at a STATE FUNERAL!! CLASSLESS!" except for the fact it isn't a state funeral, is a memeorial with a party-like atmosphere and it was just a photo... The ironic thing is the people who made a big deal about it are the ones distracting from Mandela's memory. They're the ones that made a big deal about nothing and instead of remembering Mandela, are taking political pot shots. Sad.

    December 11, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  19. Name jk. Sfl. GOP CRUZ lee&rubio 24billion dallar LOSS of your tax money conservatives,the garbage of America.

    I say, get that GOP teabag one termerissa to conduct an congressional investagation to keep the GOP nitwits happy until they lose the house next year. The GOP conservatives ARE the GARBAGE OF AMERICA!!!!!

    December 11, 2013 06:08 pm at 6:08 pm |
  20. Lisa P.


    As a Republican, I will criticize Obama no matter what.
    December 11, 2013 05:40 pm at 5:40 pm
    Thank you for your honesty! 😀

    December 11, 2013 06:10 pm at 6:10 pm |
  21. Guest

    Obama is laughable. You just can't make this stuff up.

    December 11, 2013 06:15 pm at 6:15 pm |
  22. Manny

    CNN, you really need to stop with these non stories. There is actual news out there to report. Maybe you should check out the Aljazeera American page for ideas.

    December 11, 2013 06:17 pm at 6:17 pm |
  23. Rembrant

    Whats the big deal?? Get a life. Find something to do, preferably something constructive.

    December 11, 2013 06:19 pm at 6:19 pm |
  24. Elle Oop

    Tasteless for sure. Imagine if George Bush had done this. The left would have been steaming! Because it is the president, it's ok? Of course it is. He does no wrong.

    December 11, 2013 06:20 pm at 6:20 pm |
  25. Elle Oop

    Why should he start showing respect for the office now? He hasn't done so in the last 5 years. Give him another hall pass.

    December 11, 2013 06:23 pm at 6:23 pm |
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