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. ObamaCares!

    Once again, the racist, neo-confederates are out in force to try and bring down Barack Hussian Obama, the Greatest President of our time!!!!!
    At the very least, he cleaned up the mess that Genocide George left- our retadedd former president (who now paints pets!)

    December 11, 2013 08:50 pm at 8:50 pm |
  2. Dirty White Boy

    Michelle Obama always has a scowl on her face.This is not a normal look as the media tries to explain away a nasty attitude.Taking a selfie doesn't seem the least bit disrespectful to me but I am not the one who commented or complained.His wife seemed to not like it one little bit.And the indignation women have makes me believe the change of seating was no accident or unmeaning action.

    December 11, 2013 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  3. DBFCO

    Hilarious, the big lady looks none too happy!

    December 11, 2013 08:52 pm at 8:52 pm |
  4. amontagno

    very juvenile

    December 11, 2013 09:01 pm at 9:01 pm |
  5. G. T. Simpson

    A tasteless and classless act on the part of the POTUS – but what else do you expect from the Narcissist in Chief!

    December 11, 2013 09:01 pm at 9:01 pm |
  6. romedroid

    Of course GW Bush posed for an Instagram picture with freaking Bono and not a peep about it from the right. This is as ridiculous as the right making such a big deal out of a marine holding his umbrealla during a speech on the White House lawn a couple months ago. It's a smear. They smear every breath he takes. Get over yourselves if you think a celebration of life as it was intended is an inappropriate venue for this behavior. If it is, there shouldn't even be press at something like this, because they're taking pictures too.

    December 11, 2013 09:02 pm at 9:02 pm |
  7. Anessa Hughes

    Memorial. Not funeral.
    Celebration of his life. Not interment of his body at his death.

    December 11, 2013 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
  8. Smeagel4T

    Clearly our country is doomed if there is a huge raging debate over whether a president should take a picture of himself with other world leaders.

    December 11, 2013 09:05 pm at 9:05 pm |
  9. Jim970

    Although I think "selfies" are really "dumm", if they wanted to do one, so what? It's really no big deal.

    December 11, 2013 09:08 pm at 9:08 pm |
  10. peacemonger

    People need to lighten up, Its the age we're living in. From what I've read, there was an air of celebration at the event. A celebration of a truly great man. A man for the ages. People are human and take pictures of themselves with the technology at hand. President Obama is also a great man, and will be proven to be by history.

    December 11, 2013 09:10 pm at 9:10 pm |
  11. EdL

    Careful, folks, anyone who criticizes Mr O is a racist.

    December 11, 2013 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  12. Daryl

    My God! This is the president of the United States of America at a memorial service for a world leader, not a teenager in a movie theater. Can anyone with intellectual integrity really even try to defend this behavior??

    December 11, 2013 09:12 pm at 9:12 pm |
  13. glenn

    How would you feel if it was your father's funeral and this is how people behaved?

    December 11, 2013 09:15 pm at 9:15 pm |
  14. BeBoppin

    If you hate Obama, this is a big deal. It you don't, who cares?

    December 11, 2013 09:17 pm at 9:17 pm |
  15. optimistica

    uh – harmless for sure.

    December 11, 2013 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  16. Joyce

    I think it was tasteless, and I don't care if everybody else was partying up a storm. When you're President of the United States, you should behave with some decorum at public functions, regardless of what everybody else is doing.

    However, I understand that Obama follows his own rules, and cannot be expected to act like a respectful adult when those around him are not.

    I mean, this is the President that gave the Queen of England an ipod. What more can we expect?

    December 11, 2013 09:22 pm at 9:22 pm |
  17. cmml

    Ask yourself – how would the media react if Bush were to have done this. I think if you were really honest with yourselves you would realize that the media would have skewered him as being insensitive. They wouldn't have justified it as having occurred during a more festive part of the memorial, in fact they would never have mentioned that at all. I recall the media having a field day on Bush for his behavior on one particular trip to Africa when he tried to learn a traditional African dance.

    December 11, 2013 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  18. cmml

    Imagine how you would feel if your daughter and her friends were taking selfies at your father's funeral

    December 11, 2013 09:27 pm at 9:27 pm |
  19. Spgfld Tom

    Totally inappropriate. Obama is the President of the United States and needs to act like such (even if the locals are hootin' it up in the streets). Can you imagine the outrage from the media if a Republican President had done the same thing?

    December 11, 2013 09:28 pm at 9:28 pm |
  20. j. r. hamm

    He is not acting presidential. America's president should at all times be dignified, President Obama is in my
    opinion – – -inept. shame on him.

    December 11, 2013 09:30 pm at 9:30 pm |
  21. Name

    Seriously? Seriously? You care about the president taking a selfie ? How completely lame is this? Grow up America... we have bigger fish to fry!

    December 11, 2013 09:31 pm at 9:31 pm |
  22. Don't blame me, I'm Obama!

    Hey, look at me, I'm Obama!!! What a mule we have as pres...

    December 11, 2013 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  23. jl9830

    Let me guess: Republicans think he's rude and distasteful, and Democrats think he's hip and cool and hilarious. Case closed.

    December 11, 2013 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  24. Trent

    The fact that this has captured the attention of so many people and become a "controversial issue" really just indicates how empty-headed those people are.

    December 11, 2013 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  25. RamboJohnJ

    This wasn't a funeral folks, it was a memorial service.. Those complaining about the selfie had no problem with the singing, dancing and flag waving though huh? lol

    December 11, 2013 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
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