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 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. lawyerprof

    Really folks? The Danish prime minister is the one whose camera is taking the picture. The Mandela family asked that this be a celebration with joy and laughter, not mourning. It was in a stadium, not a church. And the President's speech was terrific-he received a standing ovation. If you want tears and lamentations, go to a funeral in this country where a young person has been killed by needless gun violence.

    December 10, 2013 02:29 pm at 2:29 pm |
  2. Chicago

    It's what Lincoln would have done.

    December 10, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  3. Olu

    If you would take a picture with your friends at a memorial service, pls don't judge. If you wouldn't then go ahead. You Americans are so selfish and ungrateful.

    December 10, 2013 02:30 pm at 2:30 pm |
  4. bud

    To all who say this no big deal and this is ok, be honest, what would you say if the headline was "George W Bush takes selfie"?

    December 10, 2013 02:32 pm at 2:32 pm |
  5. Josh

    How do we know they are not looking at photos they had of Nelson Mandela? But "clearly" doesn't cut it. I'm not a fan of Obama, but I am less of fan of unverified stories. It should also be known that most of the broadcasters reporting from the stadium described it as a celebration.

    December 10, 2013 02:33 pm at 2:33 pm |
  6. Forrestal

    "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
    And – which is more – you'll be a Man, my son!"

    Rudyard Kipling

    December 10, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  7. Sniffit

    "He could at least pretend to be sad for the passing of a great man. "

    Why? All of South Africa is wildly partying and celebrating Mandela's long life, epic legacy and peaceful passing. There probably wasn't a phone or camera in the entire place that wasn't snapping pictures left and right. Some cultures sing and dance in response to a beloved person's death, rather than wallow in sadness and moribund thoughts.

    December 10, 2013 02:34 pm at 2:34 pm |
  8. nick

    hmmm, i wonder who was for and against aparteid?

    December 10, 2013 02:36 pm at 2:36 pm |
  9. Really?

    This is really sad to see this baffoon Obama represent our country acting like an idiot at a funeral. How disrespectful. To all u fools trying to make excuses and lie that Bush did the same. Lets get someting straight here. None of u would do the same had Bush been the POTUS and did this at a funeral. Bush is not the POTUS. Obama is. This is so undignified and where is the meiai decrying this blatant disrespect for such a great man? Unbelievable

    December 10, 2013 02:37 pm at 2:37 pm |
  10. Peace

    @ Bill
    If it would have been President Bush doing this, it would be all over the media as classless, but Obama can do no wrong.

    Do you follow News? Where were you when Bush was massaging Angela Merkel's shoulders while fellow leaders and the entire world watching? Did you hear anything from the media?

    December 10, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  11. ser

    seems pretty inappropriate and childish if you ask me....

    December 10, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  12. An Inconvenient Truth

    We spent how many millions for him to get there and act like an imbecile??? 2016 can't get here fast enough. This guy is a real embarrassment, in more ways that we can count.

    December 10, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  13. Bren

    God I am glad I'm not famous, having every move I make scrutinized by self righteous low self esteemed losers all around the world.

    December 10, 2013 02:44 pm at 2:44 pm |
  14. afrosheen

    i party everytime a black man dies, trayvon was a GREAT party, so why shouldn't they?

    December 10, 2013 02:47 pm at 2:47 pm |
  15. ShawnDH

    A true 21st-century President. I love this guy.

    December 10, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  16. scott

    Once again, of course, it's not Obama...nothing is HIS fault; oh, and, he's done wonderful things for the Nation. At least he could have kept his composure for 4 hours; however, let's blame this one again on someone else. Wait a was Bush's fault again...

    December 10, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  17. Fred M.

    liberal disease wrote: "he takes a photo of himself at a memorial? says it all!!"

    No, mörön, the Prime Minister of Denmark is holding the camera and taking the picture.

    Remember how GOP Saint Reagan supported the apartheid regime? A selfie at a celebration of Mandela's life vs. supporting the racist, white regime that imprisoned him. Which do you think supporters of Nelson Mandela find more offensive?

    December 10, 2013 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  18. afrosheen

    I remember the party we had when MLK died! Whew, STILL recovering from that one!

    December 10, 2013 02:49 pm at 2:49 pm |
  19. Ken

    Looks like their at a football game celebrating

    December 10, 2013 02:50 pm at 2:50 pm |
  20. Pam

    Celebration or not, I find this tasteless and disrespectful.

    December 10, 2013 02:51 pm at 2:51 pm |
  21. Phil

    Classy class class

    December 10, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  22. afrosheen

    i bet michelle regrets those nudez on baracks obamafone now! check out her mug! LOL!

    December 10, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  23. The Truth Hurts

    Hope the PMs kept one hand on their wallets...

    December 10, 2013 02:52 pm at 2:52 pm |
  24. Jack

    I love Obama as a president, but this is truly disrespectful. The look on the first lady's face says it all, clearly she didn't approve of the photo op.

    December 10, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
  25. Sniffit

    "Rudyard Kipling"

    I'm not so sure quoting the man who wrote "The White Man's Burden" is such a great idea in this context.

    "This is so undignified and where is the meiai decrying this blatant disrespect for such a great man? "

    Probably being drowned out by the yelling shouting and partying of the South African people in celebration of Mandela's life. Get a clue: this wasn't even remotely inappropriate and this wasn't a morbid funeral like some people have here in this country.

    December 10, 2013 02:53 pm at 2:53 pm |
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