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. Tiger

    I TOLD you the blonde would dig you!

    December 11, 2013 07:06 pm at 7:06 pm |
  2. carmen

    Obama showed a total lack of respect. He is an embarrassment to the US.

    December 11, 2013 07:07 pm at 7:07 pm |
  3. Frank Eggers

    Much ado about nothing. Can't the media find something more important than making an issue of such trivia?

    December 11, 2013 07:08 pm at 7:08 pm |
  4. sally

    Every little inconsequential thing this president does is made a big to-do...with the Republicans calling it awful and Democrats seeing it for what it is...a fun moment for Obama at a ceremony which was anything but staid and serious. In fact, the whole affair is more like a fiesta than a funeral!

    December 11, 2013 07:09 pm at 7:09 pm |
  5. Guest

    I am not a right leaning person i am left, and it wasnt a celebration it was a Memorial service to remember there past leader. shamful. how did Memorial the word turn in to a party?

    December 11, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  6. Really?

    How is this any different than if the same people were posing for a professional photographer (as there were apparently many present)? Heads of state are people too, and want souvenirs of their meeting with others. The fact that this was a selfie doesn't change the fact that there were probably several thousand other photos taken at the Memorial Service (not a funeral!)

    December 11, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  7. Standard Issue

    It's what Obama is all about.!

    December 11, 2013 07:19 pm at 7:19 pm |
  8. Mara Tam

    How many dignitaries in the stands? Awaiting the ceremony. Not during. This was not the funeral. Big deal.

    December 11, 2013 07:21 pm at 7:21 pm |
  9. Perplexed

    First of all this was a celebration of Mandela's life and many accomplishments. The funeral will be held next week. People were jovial and celebratory. What looks like 3 leaders being human is being blown out of proportion. Why, let's say the real reason the Prime Minister is white and the U.S. President is black, therefore they have to have the hots for each other....right? This is a non story and just shows the people that are promoting it and not the great speech and Mandela's work are still promoting stereotypes. Read what the photographer actually had to say.

    December 11, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  10. mickeygib

    Michelle was not amused.

    December 11, 2013 07:32 pm at 7:32 pm |
  11. Tari Torch Sweeney - Shaker Heights, OH

    I think this is another "big to-do about nothing." Ted Cruz walking out when Raul Castro was speaking was FAR and away the most disgusting thing. What a jerk. Regardless of their thoughts politically, I believe Obama did the right thing, shaking Castro's hand. And taking a "selfie" was actually kind of fun/funny! Their expressions were a riot, especially the Danish Prime Minister. Even Michelle Obama had a great photo-face! I'm sure she wasn't judging…read what the photographer said about her pose before you judge. Honestly, leave them all alone once in awhile…they are regular human beings having fun. The entire funeral was a celebration, like an Irish wake. They were celebrating the life and times of this incredible man…not being depressed and sad. I, personally, like the photo of them doing this. Now, Ted Cruz? Someone should have taken a photo of him being rude, crude and stupid. …and I'll bet he thought he was being so "smart" and "with it." He should be ashamed of himself, but I'm sure he doesn't know the meaning of that word. Hahahaha. If he weren't' such a sad figure, he'd be funny.

    December 11, 2013 07:32 pm at 7:32 pm |
  12. CG

    What's the issue anyways?

    December 11, 2013 07:34 pm at 7:34 pm |
  13. Gary

    If George Bush would've done that he would have been crucified in the mainstream media. Obama does it and nobody cares.

    December 11, 2013 07:36 pm at 7:36 pm |
  14. karincp

    just don't think a US president should stoop down to 'commoner' status and do selfies in public – esp at a somber moment -maybe it was the DK PM that issue ?

    December 11, 2013 07:37 pm at 7:37 pm |
  15. Wyckette

    There are homeless families, impoverished families, terminally ill patients, a congress and a senate that need a kick in the rear and people are worried about a selfie? Really. According to a news report today there was a lull in the service and Mrs. O had just turned away. Otherwise, she had been smiling and enjoying the reparté of her husband and others. Move ON!

    December 11, 2013 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  16. TiredOfMadeUpNews

    Agree with VEW2012…it must have been a slow news day to spend so much time on this…from everything I've heard and read, the "funeral" was a celebration of Mandela's life – not meant to be a somber event

    December 11, 2013 07:43 pm at 7:43 pm |
  17. miitz

    It doesn't matter what OUR Prez does or doesn't do, there will always be the haters & right wingers that make everything he does a major issue. If he ran into a burning building and rescued a family of 5 he would be accused of grandstanding. In my 60 plus years I have never seen the vitriolic comments about a president. All the effort to discredit him failed to stop his re-election. The openly obstructive actions of the opposing party has had negative effects on the economic recovery and caused hardship to the citizens of our country. Get over it and do your job.

    December 11, 2013 07:45 pm at 7:45 pm |
  18. deee510

    This is silly. If the other leaders asked our president for a picture and he was kind enough to accept what's the big deal.?and why would the tall athletic highly educated Mrs Obama worry about the blonde pm?.she is married to the leader of the free world has two lovely children with him.and that blonde looks twice Michelle's age judging by those wrinkles. Also our president would not be the man he is without that strong black woman having his back and he'll say it in a minute. Lol

    December 11, 2013 07:46 pm at 7:46 pm |
  19. Norman

    no one cares- big deal

    December 11, 2013 07:47 pm at 7:47 pm |
  20. Ryan

    "Like a carnival' I agree. and Mandela was the clown.

    December 11, 2013 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  21. mark

    i saw that in SA there was a distinctively celebratory component to the country's response. it is not surprising that the ones who criticize the president probably in general cannot imagine anything in the world being different from how they expect things to be. if everyone else had their heads bowed in silence, then yes...this would be odd indeed. but i imagine the president has some sense and i suspect he really does respect mandela, so i'd give him the benefit of the doubt. people who don't believe these things to be true might not.

    December 11, 2013 07:50 pm at 7:50 pm |
  22. rs

    Reading the posts, you can almost document when Rush made his pronouncement..... so sad so many carry the big mans water for him.

    December 11, 2013 07:52 pm at 7:52 pm |
  23. John

    Folks ... get over yourselves ...

    December 11, 2013 07:55 pm at 7:55 pm |
  24. Joe

    We are all falling for the wag-the-dog here.....clearly Obama's pr advisor's idea was to publish some over-blown, nonsensical articles in an effort to create some over-the-top buzz. It's all staged to create sympathy for Obama to get him out of his ratings doldrums.

    December 11, 2013 07:56 pm at 7:56 pm |
  25. cbp

    The occasion was a celebration of the life of a man who was known around the world. This was not a solemn occasion but it was a chance to honor Nelson Mandela. This selfie is a non-issue unless you are looking for a reason to make this headline news. Certainly the President's words were much more important and unless you were up at 4 a.m. you missed it. The press might have done well to print what he said and to give us all a chance to read or hear his words. instead we got the "selfie" which means nothing to anyone except the three in the picture.

    It is time we dwelled on the important issues. Rush Limbaugh should look for more important issues than a handshake between the Presdent and Mr. Castro at this memorial gathering.

    December 11, 2013 08:01 pm at 8:01 pm |
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