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. Taxman100

    Really you need to ask that question?
    Of course it is nothing, leave the guy alone already. Next thing people will be asking is the paper roll over the top or under. Who cares!!!

    December 11, 2013 08:03 pm at 8:03 pm |
  2. connie mancillas

    This whole article is ridiculous. Even the man who took the photo has said the interpretation of it has been way off base. It shows a lack of understanding of what was going on at the time and it's a cheap shot on CNN's part to create controversy when their is none.

    December 11, 2013 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  3. silencedogood20

    Tasteless to take a selfie at a funeral–that's what it was, a ceremony to honor Mandela. But the look on their faces after she obviously griped him out for flirting with a hotter, more powerful woman. Priceless.

    December 11, 2013 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  4. Fed UP

    AS usual he is crass and boorish. An embarrassment to America.

    December 11, 2013 08:09 pm at 8:09 pm |
  5. herejustforyou

    If you like Obama, it's no big deal. If you don't, it's unforgivable.

    That simple.

    December 11, 2013 08:10 pm at 8:10 pm |
  6. Akin Ajose-Adeogun

    I somehow cannot picture Lyndon Johnson, Lester Pearson, and de Gaulle in a similar tourists' pose at Winston Churchill's state funeral at St. Paul's Cathedral in 1965. I suppose times have changed. It illustrates the changes in social conventions and mores that have occurred over time. Maybe the more relaxed and open present times are better than the stuffiness of the past.

    December 11, 2013 08:13 pm at 8:13 pm |
  7. Brian

    How bout say this selfie is both harmless, and tasteless? I don't see how a selfie at a funeral can be harmful to anyone, but it is very tasteless. Don't try to spin it any other way. You. Know, if Bush did this, the left would be ALL OVER IT! But hey, it's Obama, and he's hip, so it's ok...

    December 11, 2013 08:14 pm at 8:14 pm |
  8. Sunday46

    It is awful how the President can't have a minute to to laugh or to enjoy his friends. Some people resent
    him being the President so, they resent his whole life. Just like Mandela, Obama is not going to change for
    "those people". My prayers are with him and his Staff.

    December 11, 2013 08:15 pm at 8:15 pm |
  9. Bilbo

    ""Her stern look was captured by chance." uh huh....5 or 6 times by chance if the photos above are any indication.

    December 11, 2013 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  10. RBbrighton

    What else would a narcissist take a picture of? His favorite subject!

    December 11, 2013 08:17 pm at 8:17 pm |
  11. Kenny

    So the bovine bloviator intervened in the conversation? Well, his pay check might be short if he doesn't stir up the zombies who listen to him.
    The photog who shot it explained, the first lady participated and was having fun as well. Mr. Bloviator and his ignorant ilk just have to spin it cuz they hate...which is fine because haters are always off balance...

    December 11, 2013 08:18 pm at 8:18 pm |
  12. Diplomad

    Right. Imagine the MSM reaction if Palin, or Bush or Cruz had behaved in this manner. CNN and MSNBC heads would have exploded in outrage.

    December 11, 2013 08:21 pm at 8:21 pm |
  13. B Herndon

    A lot of people feel they have to make excuses for this. And it isn't the end of the world.
    But come on, it was a dumb idea.

    December 11, 2013 08:22 pm at 8:22 pm |
  14. Maria Rivera-Carvalho

    This article: pointless.

    December 11, 2013 08:29 pm at 8:29 pm |
  15. ^^^()^^^

    neither. just people being people.

    December 11, 2013 08:31 pm at 8:31 pm |
  16. TLORop

    get a life

    December 11, 2013 08:32 pm at 8:32 pm |
  17. BrendaJones

    Left, right, or in between, that selfie was totally inappropriate. There's a time and place for everything... they should have taken their picture after the service, not during it.

    December 11, 2013 08:32 pm at 8:32 pm |
  18. ^^^()^^^

    wow...that dog poses just perfect for the camera.

    December 11, 2013 08:32 pm at 8:32 pm |
  19. Postmaster

    Will this President ever show any class? Disqusting display of immaturity.

    December 11, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  20. mannycl

    Personally I believe it was in very poor taste. It was a funeral and people attending should behave accordingly, above all when representing our nation and being watched by the whole world.

    December 11, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  21. brian kelleher

    Obama selfie "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."

    December 11, 2013 08:40 pm at 8:40 pm |
  22. Rosemary

    If it was important enough for Obama to spend the American Taxpayers money to go, if it was important enough for most of the leaders of the world to go, then it was important enough to have some respect for Mandela. No wonder no one respects the US anymore, with the President acting like a spoiled teenager at a Memorial Service. It doesn't matter what others do, OUR President should have more respect and be more mature. I wonder if you would have found this behavior appropriate at Ted Kennedy's memorial service?

    December 11, 2013 08:44 pm at 8:44 pm |
  23. danicalifornia

    I'm not appalled by that. I am more appalled that he didn't attend the memorial service for Neil Armstrong.

    December 11, 2013 08:45 pm at 8:45 pm |
  24. newshound

    If you have to ask if this is appropriate behavior for the leader of the free world at a funeral, things are declining at an even faster rate that I thought.

    December 11, 2013 08:45 pm at 8:45 pm |
  25. brite

    I see nothing wrong, they were enjoying a mommentof laugh.:)

    December 11, 2013 08:49 pm at 8:49 pm |
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