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. Dee

    he CLEARLY was looking over at the PM's phone! what is wrong with people! just using a non-story to stir up controversy about our awesome President!

    December 11, 2013 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
  2. Judi

    The RWers have to make a big todo about NOTHING. The entire memorial was a celebration of Mandela's life with song, laughter and dance. This is the way it is done in their country.
    Even the photographer at the memorial said there was NOTHING wrong with this behavior, and that it was snapped just as Michele turned her head...there were no bad feelings.
    These foolish conservatives have a ROTTEN outlook on life....especially SOMEONE ELSES.

    December 11, 2013 09:47 pm at 9:47 pm |
  3. Brian from DC

    Thank God that we can't find any images of George W. Bush acting like an ex-drunk!

    December 11, 2013 09:50 pm at 9:50 pm |
  4. Andrew

    he's a loser

    December 11, 2013 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  5. Simon

    CNN is ridiculou$! Any story even remotely critical of obama gets "soundoff" comment system, not Disqus. Obvious they don't want to see the most popular comments.. Foolish and absurd fanboyism!

    December 11, 2013 10:03 pm at 10:03 pm |
  6. oharris30

    I am sure President Mandela would have joined them if he could. I am starting to have second and third thoughts about repubs ever winning the WH ever again. Ted Cruz "planned" walk out.

    December 11, 2013 10:08 pm at 10:08 pm |
  7. John Riley Goldsmith

    The photos indicate that Rush Limbaugh was right when he said that whenever and wherever the President appears he considers that it is about him. Thankfully his wife doesn't make the same assumption.

    December 11, 2013 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |
  8. Name

    Inapprropriate. This is unbecoming of someone who is representing the u.s.

    December 11, 2013 10:17 pm at 10:17 pm |
  9. Kurt

    Just another idiot doing dumb things

    December 11, 2013 10:19 pm at 10:19 pm |
  10. Uncle Sam

    Everything he does seems to be tasteless. So what's new?

    December 11, 2013 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm |
  11. dmercer

    There is a time and a place for things like this but at a funeral? And he's the leader of the United States? He looks like a bored teenager with his friends. Again this shows how Barack Obama has failed the American people.

    December 11, 2013 10:31 pm at 10:31 pm |
  12. Iris

    Everything do not need to be interpreted....It is just a human moment...detractors out there...get a life!!

    December 11, 2013 10:32 pm at 10:32 pm |
  13. Mary

    This was a celebration of life, not death. Apparently everyone was in a joyous mood. Mandela lived a very long time and if you notice in all of his pictures, he smiles. He called Queen Elizabeth by her first name and even talked to her about her weight. It is called being human. This was not a dry wake, it was a celebratory one.

    December 11, 2013 10:34 pm at 10:34 pm |
  14. Neo Anderson

    When I was a kid, I had fun playing the odd man out looking at drawings and puzzles. What's odd about this selfie? Well first this is a sombre moment, of course it is a celebration of Mandela's life, but you don't see clowns entertaining people to celebrate his life just cause it's called a celebration. Second, if you can see the other pics of the same place, look at everyone else, including the first lady. Everyone else except those 3 seem to understand where they are at.

    December 12, 2013 02:57 pm at 2:57 pm |
  15. JohnB

    I am completely anti-Obama, but this is a non story.

    December 12, 2013 03:01 pm at 3:01 pm |
  16. kurk cole

    as usual our fearless leader showing just how friggin tasteless and clueless he really is ,the man dosnt have a brain in his head,no respect for mr mandela ,just another example why this countrybis so screwed up

    December 12, 2013 03:03 pm at 3:03 pm |
  17. quackers

    Obama's a NARCISSIST who is obsessed with himself and craves attention. All the dumb liberals who voted for him all want to see him. They are disgusting. This country and Obama is a disgrace.

    December 12, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  18. drewj

    Firstly, there's a difference between a memorial service and a funeral. This was a celebratory event to show respect to one of the best men to have lived in the last century. Really any news coverage on this is pretty unnecessary, and Limbaugh's response is (as Limbaugh's responses typically are) absolutely insane.

    December 12, 2013 03:04 pm at 3:04 pm |
  19. Geoff

    I hope you people saying this is no big deal will have the same thing to say to your children when they are taking selfies during school assemblies.

    December 12, 2013 03:06 pm at 3:06 pm |
  20. Dave

    Obama is a disgrace to this country and his family. This was the funeral for a great man. Anyone that doesn't see how inappropriate this was is either extremely ignorant or has no morals. Get a clue CNN. Obaba is a failure.

    December 12, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  21. Worst President Ever

    I like how all of the Obamabots rush to his defense. I swear, he could slit your children's throats & you would find a way to praise him!

    December 12, 2013 03:08 pm at 3:08 pm |
  22. Denise

    Read no further when Boss Hogg speaks.....noone listens....

    December 12, 2013 03:19 pm at 3:19 pm |
  23. misterflibble1

    @Worst President Ever
    You're seriously comparing taking a selfie to murdering children by slitting their throats? Wow dude! Just wow!

    December 12, 2013 03:24 pm at 3:24 pm |
  24. candodan

    Boy, the media is really reaching to criticize Obama. It is unbelievable but I think that is all the republicans can come up with because they have been out of gas for quite a while. Where I come from it is all "really reaching". So sad, these republicans.

    December 12, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
  25. Carter Sherline

    First the event was suppose to be a celebration of Mandela's life and work. I have no doubt Mandela would have approved. This was not a funeral and even if it were they don't do funerals there like they usually do here. Even the rain was welcomed because it is a good thing there, while it would not be welcomed here. Second our President is human and I am glad he acts like he is. Third the First Lady doesn't look upset at anything to me, she looks tired like she recently flew on a long flight and wants to still give her attention to the event.

    December 12, 2013 03:28 pm at 3:28 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55