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 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. Annie

    Of course this is not big deal to those who worship Obama. Had it been a Republican they would have seen it for what it is – not becoming of our President – showing disrespect at a funeral. Not a fan of Michelle's, but for the first time in my adult life, I'm proud of this first lady for acting as she should at a funeral that has leaders from all over the world attending. Obama is a loser.

    December 11, 2013 06:25 pm at 6:25 pm |
  2. Bert Dijkhuizen

    You don't have to be married more than a couple of weeks to recognize what Michelle is thinking about the whole affair. I think the prez got hot tongue and cold shoulder for dinner and breakfast...

    December 11, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  3. Essie

    Once again, America is the only one that shows no class!!! Everyone else thought the picture was fun & humorous! But then here come some of the hateful, ignorant, racist, judgemental Americans putting down their leader!!! It embarrassing people!!!! .... I'M GLAD TO SEE PRESIDENT OBAMA ENJOYING THE SPIRIT AND THE JUBILANT ATMOSPHERE OF THE PEOPLE OF AFRICA AND NELSON MANDELA!!!!!

    December 11, 2013 06:28 pm at 6:28 pm |
  4. Lisa P.

    Oh, and by the way: great photograph! The photographer, Roberto Schmidt, deserves congratulations for catching that very human moment (including the First Lady paying more attention to the public presentations than the goings-on to her right). His achievement does not deserve to be overshadowed and ruined by the bloviators and opportunists - this ought to be one of the top news photos of the year. I hope the fake political/cultural controversy doesn't spoil it for him.

    December 11, 2013 06:29 pm at 6:29 pm |
  5. retiree

    I guess that I'll take a selfie at BO's funeral should he pre-decease me! I might even make a Vine video, perhaps a snap on Instagram, or whatever NEW media will be out there twenty or thirty years from now.

    December 11, 2013 06:31 pm at 6:31 pm |
  6. Ben

    I think that it's so silly to make a big deal about something like this that I feel silly even getting involved in the discussion enough to say this. I don't understand why people make a big deal out of stuff like this. Where is the real news?

    December 11, 2013 06:34 pm at 6:34 pm |
  7. MoodyFoodie

    Selfies are tacky at the best of times. Regardless of what the atmosphere was they all should have remembered they were world leaders at a state funeral and not acted like a bunch of teenagers.

    December 11, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  8. lori

    i know that look (i've seen it on my face). the First Lady wants to punch hubby in the arm

    December 11, 2013 06:42 pm at 6:42 pm |
  9. jpills

    Nobody loves much as he loves himself. So actually doesn't surprise me. He thinks he is center of attention, even if only to the woman on his right, vs left. Totally tasteless.
    Would you do this at the funeral service of a relative, laughing and taking a picture of self!

    December 11, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  10. elvinmerij

    Agh, give it a rest. First of all, it's not a funeral, it's like some kind of 'homage' or something. Bunch of talking heads giving speeches. There's like, 90,000 people there? More like a soccer game than a funeral. Secondly, Mandela was the kind of guy who would have loved to have people enjoying themselves at his own funeral - heck, he'd have joined them if he could! I swear he was part Irish.

    December 11, 2013 06:44 pm at 6:44 pm |
  11. Jimmy America

    The President did nothing inappropriate. Mandela's funeral was a huge, celebratory event, not a somber, sob-filled Western-style funeral. The late Mandela was a great man who meant a great deal to a huge number of people, most of whom are sad to see him go but will not mourn him with depression. There is nothing wrong with smiling and taking pictures at a funeral like this – it is a time to celebrate all that Mandela accomplished, and to revel among the masses who appreciated his service to humanity. It was his time, and he died a happy, free man, so why not enjoy the celebration and take a few pictures to help remember it, and him? If you were not there and still criticize the behavior of anyone who was, you need to get over yourself.

    Sorry if not every funeral is an uncomfortable, horrific, gut-wrenching, cry-fest. My father's was not centered around sadness, and it was wonderful.

    December 11, 2013 06:45 pm at 6:45 pm |
  12. Osama

    for Gods sake it was not a selfy! there was 3 people in the shot, GROUP PHOTO!

    December 11, 2013 06:46 pm at 6:46 pm |
  13. JJ

    Only a moron would call that tasteless. Get a life.

    December 11, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  14. skarphace

    To all the reading comprehension lacking Republicans out there, one more time: THIS WAS NOT A FUNERAL. Got it?

    How did the far-right get so full of stupid people? Ted Cruz represents you freaks well.

    December 11, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  15. Matt

    Apparently you didn't watch a moment of the ceremonies and are judging purely on some fools attempt to pander to the right's agenda (per usual). The whole stadium, was a laughing, dancing, joyess celebration of Mandela's life. To not partake in this celebration would be a disgrace to Mandela. Apparently you also missed Obama's speech to Mandela. Bunch of hypocritical, hate-spewing, fools on 'that side'.

    December 11, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  16. Fred G.

    Doing a selfie isn't very Presidential, IMHO. I don't think Mr. Obama knows how to do "Presidential" very well. It's like he's afraid of being known as a stuffed shirt instead of a "with-it" type of guy. But the electorate would probably go for a "with-it" guy over a stuffed shirt. When popularity counts more than ability, that's what you get. Sad for our country.

    December 11, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  17. jamie

    No one ever accused the man of having class.

    December 11, 2013 06:49 pm at 6:49 pm |
  18. Just

    The O is an embarrassment worldwide.

    December 11, 2013 06:53 pm at 6:53 pm |
  19. amisc1970

    Limbaugh' assertion is absurd. If Obama was trying to make the memorial service about himself, he would have had to arrange this photo taken and posted, or he would have had to post the selfie picture himself. Note that the AFP Photographer Roberto Schmidt was about 150 meters away when he took the photo, so he just happened to catch the event.

    December 11, 2013 06:55 pm at 6:55 pm |
  20. Sandra

    It was harmless. The service was a celebration of the achievements of Nelson Mandela, and a mourning state funeral. People were cheering, singing, etc etc. If President Obama had the hiccups you talking heads would try to make something scandalous about that, wouldn't you?

    December 11, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  21. skarphace

    By the way, as for my comment, "Ted Cruz represents you freaks well," let me explain in case you miss the connection. Ted Cruz couldn't even understand a Doctor Suess story (as the story, "Green Eggs and Ham" is about trying new things, not refusing to change, as Ted Cruz thought it was). You freaks cannot understand the difference between a funeral and a memorial service. That is the connection.

    Regardless, it does not matter how Obama behaved at Mandela's memorial celebration. You Tea Freaks would have found fault with it no matter what he did. If he had appeared stoic in the midst of the celebration you would have called him elitist. If he had refused to have his picture taken with other leaders you would have said he was acting like a king. The day you find nothing left with which to criticize our President is the day you probably fall into a depression.

    December 11, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  22. Sandra

    Reblogged this on Listening to the Voices in My Head and commented:
    It was harmless. The service was a celebration of the achievements of Nelson Mandela, and a mourning state funeral. People were cheering, singing, etc etc. If President Obama had the hiccups you talking heads would try to make something scandalous about that, wouldn't you? Yet another instance of "Obama derangement syndrome"

    December 11, 2013 06:57 pm at 6:57 pm |
  23. elvinmerij

    Ok, first – Helle Thorning-Schmidt is smokin' hot. For a 46 year old woman? C'mon man. She puts women half her age to shame.

    Second ....... well, this is what guys do when they're in a stadium with a smokin' hot woman. Ok? Case closed.

    (Oh and btw, Michelle sitting there all prissy and wassup - well tough noogies. If she doesn't want to have fun - at what is supposed to be a joyous event - that's her problem).

    December 11, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  24. redstate2013

    Everything Obama does is tasteless....not surprised at all!

    December 11, 2013 06:58 pm at 6:58 pm |
  25. Demigod Vadik, CA

    Get with the time old farts... is the 21st century...where selfies are a cool thing...

    December 11, 2013 06:59 pm at 6:59 pm |
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